By Benjamin Olneck-Brown
Among the most visible disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been the closure of K-12 schools across the United States.
As governors and public health officials imposed stay-at-home orders last spring, educators, students and families rapidly adjusted to digital learning and other emergency measures. Over the summer and fall, questions about whether and how schools would open safely have been top of mind for policymakers and millions of Americans.
In addition, the realities of remote, hybrid and in-person learning during a pandemic have created new questions and new challenges. Given the rising rates of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, these challenges will persist for the foreseeable future, and legislators may seek to address them in 2021’s legislative sessions.
In state and district reopening plans, school leaders present the health and safety of staff, students and families as paramount. National data, gathered by associations of school administrators and Brown University, suggest that although COVID-19 cases among students and staff are relatively rare, the risk of infection is higher in districts that operate in person at full capacity.
The American Association of Pediatricians (AAP) reports that while children are at a lower risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19, such cases do occur, and young people may pass on the disease to higher-risk staff. AAP data indicate that more than 1 in 100 children in the U.S. have tested positive for COVID-19, and across the country news reports of school staff contracting and dying from COVID-19 have shaken communities. The risks of COVID-19 infection and its potentially lethal results remain top of mind for education policymakers heading into 2021.
Although governors, state education departments, school administrators and public health officials have been the primary decision-makers regarding school operations during the pandemic, state legislators are keenly interested in these choices.
In particular, the mode of instruction schools use this year can have profound impacts on community health and student outcomes. Analyzing district plans, the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) found more than half of school districts would begin the year with some form of hybrid or distance learning.
Since the school year began, reports of districts, schools or student cohorts moving from in-person to remote learning due to cases of COVID-19 have been widespread, and the nation’s largest school district, New York City, has repeatedly delayed the start of school due to conflicts over instructional methods.
Crucially, CRPE’s analysis found that students living in or near poverty were more likely than their higher-income peers to start the school year remotely. This divergence raises concerns that income-based achievement gaps will grow during the pandemic: low-income students are more likely than their peers to lack broadband and these students uniquely benefit from in-person interaction with educators.
Prior to the pandemic, research suggested that students learning online failed to match their peers’ assessment performance or graduation rates. As this school year began, major news reports documented the struggles low-income students faced when trying to complete remote work, or even attend class.
Students in rural communities may face particularly severe challenges in accessing the internet for schoolwork. School leaders that choose to employ remote instruction to protect staff and students from infection may also exacerbate existing inequities in achievement and graduation on racial, geographic and economic lines.
The potential tradeoffs between public health and student success mean that legislators face important choices as they enter 2021. Some states–like Mississippi and Idaho–have already made significant investments in virtual learning in an attempt to close access gaps. State plans for addressing COVID-19 in schools deploy a variety of strategies aimed at limiting infection and supporting achievement. Read NCSL's State Legislatures magazine post on the plans.
Looking forward to next year, the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute prepared a detailed review of the pandemic’s impact on schools and recommended policies such as investment in staff training for digital instruction, a focus on social-emotional learning for students learning from home, and using diagnostic–rather than high-stakes–assessments to meet student needs.
Others, like Dale Chu at the American Enterprise Institute, argue for an expansion of school choice policies like Education Savings Accounts and hybrid homeschooling to empower families to make schooling decisions based on their child’s needs and local conditions.
Regardless of the policy direction that states and districts choose, the balance between equitable achievement and public health will continue to be a challenge in 2021. NCSL will track legislation in our education web database, and post relevant resources on our education homepage.
Benjamin Olneck-Brown is a Research Analyst in NCSL’s Education Program.