higher education schools reopening covid

States Facing Challenges as COVID-19 Radically Reshapes Higher Education

By Andrew Smalley | Sept. 23, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

When the University of Washington announced it would cancel in-person classes and move to online instruction on March 6, the entire higher education community entered a period of dramatic change, upheaval and uncertainty. The decision came at a time when Washington state had fewer than 1,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, but over the next several weeks cancellations would reverberate through campuses across the country. By the end of March, virtually all postsecondary education had moved online. Classes were held virtually, lectures were delivered over video, and commencements were cancelled, delayed or conducted remotely.

alaska senator gary stevens“Postsecondary education has never faced such challenges as we are experiencing today,” says Alaska Senator Gary Stevens (R), including the “necessity of protecting students and employees from the pandemic, fewer face-to-face classes, the difficulties associated with teaching online, reduced budgets, loss of faculty, fewer students and restricted campus access.”

The coronavirus pandemic has radically reshaped higher education. From admission to graduation, no aspect of the college experience remains unchanged, and the disruptions are far from over. How institutions and students will manage this year is uncertain, and the survival of some schools is in doubt.

Many campuses began to reopen in August, only to close a few weeks later following outbreaks of the virus, leaving students caught in a web of obstacles to obtaining a postsecondary degree, from increased financial stress to growing mental health concerns.

These challenges come at a time when education, retraining and retooling are more important than ever. Postsecondary institutions’ response to the crisis will dramatically affect the economic recovery, and state legislators and policymakers have an important role to play in that effort.

Impacts on Students

While many colleges and universities have offered some online courses for years, the abrupt and complete shift of all coursework to the web in the middle of the school year was a monumental disruption for instructors and students alike. The change forced a majority of professors to use teaching methods and programs they had never previously used. For students, online instruction presented an academic experience completely different from classroom learning and left many struggling to adapt.

Studies have warned that student performance, particularly for those already in trouble academically, can suffer in online courses. Many students lack the equipment and software to participate successfully in online coursework. An Indiana University study showed that up to 20% of college students in 2018 had inconsistent access to effective technology, such as a working laptop or reliable internet connection.

Even as some on-campus learning has resumed this fall, the higher education landscape will be unusual at best. For starters, there may be fewer students. Estimates from the American Council on Education forecast that enrollments for the next academic year will drop by 15%. Applications for federal student aid by high school seniors are down 3.7% from 2019, according to the National College Attainment Network. Standardized admissions tests such as the ACT and SAT will be optional at numerous institutions this year.

Many applicants were offered perks and privileges by schools desperate to lock in their enrollment in this hypercompetitive admissions environment. Meanwhile, graduating students enter an unsteady labor market, with the unemployment rates significantly higher than they were at the start of the year.

College students today are less likely to be recent high school graduates and more likely to be working adults paying for their own education. Ensuring that these students apply for and receive financial aid is essential.

For this reason, legislatures in Illinois, Louisiana and Texas now require high school seniors to complete the federal funding application. Existing financial aid programs may need modifications for pandemic-related disruptions to ensure proper eligibility. States including Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey and Tennessee have already passed legislation to address these barriers. Several other states also are considering strategies to provide student loan relief or forgiveness beyond the provisions of the federal CARES Act and actions by President Donald Trump, which have suspended payments and waived interest on most loans until Dec. 31 this year.

college plans covid bar chart

Impacts on State Funding

Even before the pandemic, public institutions were challenged by reductions in state funding. Budget cuts during the Great Recession significantly reduced higher education spending. Between 2008 and 2018, states spent an average of 13% less per student, after adjusting for inflation. While some states have worked to reduce these cuts over the past seven years, overall funding levels in 2019 remained 8.7% lower than pre-recession spending when adjusted for inflation.

To make up for lost state revenue, institutions have increasingly relied on and raised tuition. In over half the states, tuition now covers more than 50% of total revenues at public institutions. Between 2008 and 2018, average tuition at four-year public colleges increased by more than 35%. These increases, of course, limit who can afford postsecondary education and increase the level of loan debt for those who do attend.

The pandemic has hit state budgets hard, with significant drops in income and sales tax revenue. Governors in several states have trimmed higher education funding to balance their budgets this year, and at least a dozen states have already reduced funding for the next fiscal year.

Several states have used federal funding to reduce the scale of cuts to colleges and universities. Colorado lawmakers slashed more than $480 million (58%) from the state’s higher education budget but used $450 million in the CARES Act funding to alleviate those cuts.

In California, the legislature cut more than $1 billion from postsecondary funding but hopes to reverse those cuts if the state receives additional federal funding by October. Higher education advocacy groups have argued that colleges need nearly $50 billion in addition to the $14.25 billion in emergency relief provided to them by the CARES Act in March.

Many campuses are urgently seeking ways to curtail costs, including staff furloughs and pay reductions. Although policymakers will seek to minimize the impact of cuts on students, it appears likely that some states will be forced to reduce supports and academic resources that improve student retention and graduation rates.

Impacts on Institutions

Widespread budget challenges only amplify the potential for college closures. Only a small number of elite schools with large endowments and substantial private contributions have some financial flexibility. The rest are vulnerable to economic downturns. According to tracking from Education Dive, more than 85 colleges and universities have closed since 2016. A Forbes analysis grading the financial health of all 933 private not-for-profit colleges in the U.S. with enrollments greater than 500 found fewer than 100 schools received an A-minus grade or higher. The report also found that the wealthiest and most elite schools are getting richer while most colleges are getting poorer.

The pandemic, which has created both unexpected expenses and uncertain revenues for nearly all institutions, will only exacerbate schools’ financial challenges. Spring campus closures and partial refunds to students for room and board costs were both a loss of revenue and a major financial hit. For example, the University of Wisconsin system, which includes 13 campuses, estimates it will issue about $78 million in refunds this year.

As lawmakers continue to navigate these unexpected expenses and budget challenges, they may be forced to confront the reorganization, merger or closure of schools. Legislators play an important role in holding governing boards and institutions accountable for these proposed changes. They will consider how the changes could affect the postsecondary landscape and statewide attainment goals. Moreover, proactive oversight of postsecondary institutions can help prevent unforeseen closures and disruptions for students.

Massachusetts Rep. Jeffrey RoyThe Massachusetts General Court acted before the virus hit, in 2019, by passing HB 4099, which requires the state Board of Higher Education to annually assess each higher education institution’s financial strength. It also mandates that board members of the public institutions undergo training that covers fiduciary responsibilities, public records laws and fraud prevention.

“This legislation supports and strengthens these vital engines of opportunity and drivers of our economy, and at the same time, protects the interests of students and families who embark on the journey through our higher education system,” says Massachusetts Representative Jeffrey N. Roy (D). “The law also provides necessary tools to the board of higher education to help in the process. At the same time, it makes sure that the colleges and the universities, and the accrediting body, are engaged fully in this conversation and communicating with one another.”

And in Pennsylvania this year, lawmakers passed HB 2171, which gives the higher education board three years to merge and consolidate some colleges and universities, a process that would otherwise require authorization by the legislature.

Other states surely will be considering ways to assess and strengthen the financial health of their public institutions of higher education. The effort will require close collaboration among all policy stakeholders, including state legislators.

Looking Ahead

Despite the challenges, colleges and universities have an opportunity to redesign learning opportunities to better support today’s students. Lawmakers also have a chance to ensure that efforts to meet state attainment goals remain on track and that students receive the support and education they need to thrive in the post-pandemic future.

Stevens, the Alaska senator, remains optimistic. He believes his state’s institutions have handled the challenges well. The University of Alaska moved to online instruction in the spring and offered refunds for student housing and fees. It also developed a phased approach to reopening and created support funds for students. “I am proud of Alaska’s colleges and universities for attempting to make the best of a bad situation, keeping students’ needs at the forefront and reducing administrative costs,” he says.

“At the end of this we will have much leaner, more cost-effective institutions,” he says. “But higher education will look quite different than it has in the past.”

Andrew Smalley is a research analyst in NCSL’s Education Program.

Will the Pandemic Change the Way We Deliver K-12 Education?

By Michelle Exstrom | Sept. 23, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

Most children are back at school, but it’s not anything like school as we knew it. Students no longer huddle with friends before class, sit close to each other at lunch trading food, or walk down hallways together to their lockers. Teachers no longer lecture to rooms filled with high-schoolers or give hugs to hesitant kindergarteners. Sports and pep rallies have been canceled. Schools feel empty and sterile, and the mood is somber.

Yes, the pandemic has left school looking and feeling much different this fall. And because it was left to school districts to decide how to reopen, schools also look very different from each other.

In some communities, if school buildings are open at all, it’s only to teachers and administrators who guide instruction remotely. Other districts have welcomed all students back, but with strict social-distancing and mask-wearing rules. Still others are combining some face-to-face teaching with distance learning.

Often, what school looks like depends on the grade level. Elementary students may attend in person since they are more likely to benefit from it, and middle and high school students may learn online or in a hybrid model since they tend to adapt more easily to using the technology and usually are more self-directed.

The Center for Reinventing Public Education and the news journal Education Week are tracking the details of district reopening plans. Because of rapidly changing levels of infection, district officials were changing plans up to the very minute the new school year started, and some are still tweaking details. Regardless of the learning approach, many school district officials report that deciding what school would look like this fall was one of the most difficult decisions of their career.

Difficult Decisions for All

“We’re very concerned about safety,” says Kristi Wilson, president of the American Association of School Administrators and superintendent of the Buckeye Elementary School District just west of Phoenix. “We can make up for all kinds of disruptions. But what we can’t make up for is the critical mistake because we took an unnecessary risk with a child’s life or a teacher’s life.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided guidance for schools before they opened. State education agencies and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which advises them, provided some guidance as well. But most of the final decisions about whether and how to reopen—and the logistics of doing so—were left to the locals. School leaders were encouraged to work closely with their local health agencies to gather data on infection rates and outbreaks to determine the best approach for their communities.

Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, says her organization was listening closely to what state chiefs were saying. “Our goal was to put forward best practices and ideas. This has been the moment of contingency planning—Plan A, Plan B, C, all the way out to Z.”

Parents also faced difficult decisions with information changing often about what would be happening and when. In a recent poll, 81% of parents said they were concerned about their children being exposed to COVID-19 at school. Yet, at the same time, 81% were very or somewhat concerned about their children missing instructional time. They believed their children’s academic and emotional well-being depended on them being back in school full time.

how schools reopended covid bar chart

Some parents took the plunge into homeschooling, opting out of their school district’s plans altogether. Others who could afford it hired private tutors or teachers. In some cases, families joined together to create “learning pods,” where parents homeschooled together in small groups.

“We’ve seen an explosion in inquiry into homeschooling in my state,” says Indiana Representative Robert Behning (R). “We’ve heard that as many as 25% of students chose homeschooling or virtual options.” An incentive to do so is that Indiana allows the funding that would have gone to the school district to follow a student who leaves the district.

Legitimate concerns drove parents to make last-minute, unpredictable decisions, leaving public, private and charter schools without a clear understanding of what fall enrollment would be. Maine Representative Richard Farnsworth (D) described the situation before school started as “a crapshoot. We don’t really know how this will turn out. It’s all very hard to predict.”

Sometimes these education decisions come down to family economics. While students are at home, many parents either cannot return to work or need to hire help. If parents are working from home, they must juggle virtual meetings, emails, writing and phone calls with their children’s needs. For some families, this is just too much; they need their children to return to school.

Teachers faced tough decisions as well. They had to determine whether it was best for them and their families to return to school, and risk exposure to the virus, or to teach online, if that was an option. Some, however, felt unprepared to effectively deliver online instruction. In a survey conducted by the Education Week Research Center, most teachers reported that they did not think there should be in-person learning this fall because they were very or somewhat concerned about getting COVID-19. A Gallup poll found similar results.

In early September, news outlets across the country reported the deaths of a few teachers from the virus, though it was not known if they had caught it at their schools.

Some teachers faced layoffs or chose to leave due to the economic downturn. The Education Week poll found that 20% more teachers than before the pandemic said they would consider opting for a leave of absence or early retirement. Liza McArdle, a 50-year-old high school teacher in New Boston, Mich., for example, decided to retire because of the stress of possibly catching the disease from students and the frustration of trying to teach Spanish and French while wearing a mask. She thinks we ask too much of teachers. “We’re always expected to give, give, give. ‘You’re a teacher. You have to be there for the kids,’” McArdle told Local 10 News in Florida. “And now it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, now you have to put your life on the line for the kids because they need to be in school.’”

Members of the American Federation of Teachers agree with her concerns. In a recent poll, teachers overwhelmingly responded that, even though they want to get back into the classroom and believe the students need to be there for their academic and emotional well-being, they don’t want to return until “we can ensure the safety of our teachers using guidance issued by health officials,” AFT President Randi Weingarten stated.

This battle over teachers’ return is heating up. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis (R) required schools to reopen to in-person learning and teachers to return to their positions. Given the significant number of coronavirus cases, however, and what teachers argued were unsafe working conditions, the Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit. A county circuit judge ruled in late August in favor of the teachers, granting a temporary injunction.

The federal government is weighing in as well. In mid-August, the Department of Homeland Security issued updated guidance deeming teachers essential workers, similar to the designation of doctors and police officers. School districts in Florida and Tennessee have announced they will abide by this federal guidance.

Pandemic May Deepen Divides

“This pandemic could further divide our kids into the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ if we aren’t careful,” says West Virginia Senator Robert Plymale (D).

The education community and policymakers alike are concerned that inequities that existed prior to the pandemic will only deepen. And they worry the impact could last a lifetime. “I am very concerned that we will have an even bigger achievement gap when this is all over,” says Wisconsin Senator Luther Olson (R). “We’ll be going in the wrong direction.”

There were concerns early last spring about the growing divide between students who could easily make the transition to online learning, because their districts had the technology and trained teachers to do it, and students who were not as fortunate. In districts without current technology, teachers must hand-deliver packets of study materials to students.

And last spring, once some schools decided not to grade and count coursework done remotely, many middle- and high-school students lost any motivation to participate in online instruction. Truancy rates, or chronic absences, soared to new highs, significant learning was lost over the spring and summer, and many schools lost track of students.

Many of those inequalities still exist this fall. Some students have access to instruction for all their classes, while others have less than an hour of online contact with their teachers each week. And not all students have adults at home who can assist them.

Those most harmed academically are likely to be the students who are already struggling—students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities and English learners. While we only have estimates on the amount of learning lost as a result of the pandemic—the so-called COVID slide—we know that these struggling students already are in need of resources and services they probably did not receive last spring. School districts are better positioned to address such gaps this fall, but there will be much ground to make up.

Some students also have suffered socially and emotionally. The cancelation of important educational milestones and traditions, the limits on movement outside the home, and the requirements to wear masks and stay apart from others have been overwhelming for many children. Calls to hotlines have risen, and pediatricians and youth mental health professionals are concerned about rising reports of anxiety and depression.

All this comes at a time when resources and staff are being reduced amid budget troubles.

Education at a Crossroads

While our education system is experiencing unprecedented challenges, experts argue this is the time to rethink how we educate our children. Many feel significant change is long overdue. Those who study the connection between the health of our economy and the success of our education system have preached for over a decade the somber consequences of our mediocre student achievement compared with students in other countries.

For Anthony Mackay, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, the pandemic has revealed the vulnerability of many young people in our education system. But it also has generated renewed respect for educators. “It has underscored the value of schools as community centers and the importance of social and emotional learning,” he says. “We are confronted with the imperative to redesign our education system—informed by the future of learning and the future of work—to ensure that all young people become successful lifelong learners, confident and creative individuals and active and informed citizens.”

Legislators serving on NCSL’s International Education Study Group argued in the 2016 report “No Time to Lose” that we must waste no time in closing achievement gaps, improving equity and ensuring all students leave high school ready for college or a career. Change cannot come soon enough, they wrote.

Given that education already is being significantly disrupted, education thinkers and policy experts such as Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University and founding president of the Learning Policy Institute, argue that now is exactly the right time to launch a renewed effort to apply lessons learned from research, international studies and even a pandemic.

She recommends we:

  • Prepare culturally competent and responsive educators to serve all students.
  • Prepare leaders to make systemwide, student-centered improvements.
  • Develop tools to better assess individual student needs and progress.
  • Close the digital divide and improve distance learning for everyone.
  • Support social and emotional learning.
  • Redesign schools with “wraparound supports” that meet the needs of the whole child.
  • Lengthen learning time.
  • Leverage more adequate and equitable school funding.
  • Prepare all students for either college or a career.

We could start by assembling parents, students, educators, legislators and local policymakers to create a new vision and new goals for state education systems; comparing and benchmarking policies against those of the highest-performing systems; and creating a blueprint for success. This hard work began in Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Mexico before the pandemic, and likely will continue.

Calls for serious change to the way we educate our kids may gather even more support as the pandemic exposes the current system’s inequities, lack of resources and lagging performance. Even during a pandemic, supporters say, states can transform education challenges into opportunities for our nation’s students.

Michelle Exstrom is the director of NCSL’s Education Program.

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