AIR releases early results from national survey on public education’s COVID-19 response

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Preliminary results show wide range of teaching and learning strategies

WASHINGTON – The American Institutes for Research is releasing early results from a national survey on how U.S. school districts responded to the coronavirus pandemic during the last academic year. The preliminary results of “The National Survey of Public Education’s Response to COVID-19” includes data from about 500 school districts that have completed the survey, so far, representing nearly every U.S. state.

AIR released two reports.

One was a first look at the range of teaching and learning strategies used by school districts last spring when the pandemic forced school buildings to close. The data explore variation among districts in high- and low-poverty areas and rural and urban settings.

And the other was an early snapshot of school leaders’ responses to open-ended questions about challenges, promising practices and areas where school districts can collaborate.

“School leaders and policymakers have a lot of difficult decisions to make in the coming weeks and months regarding how to best keep students healthy and engaged in learning amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic,” Michael Garet, AIR vice president who is leading the survey project, said. “Even as we continue to collect responses, we believe it is important to provide data and information that can help inform those important decisions.”

The reports are available on the survey website at https://www.air.org/project/national-survey-public-education-s-response-covid-19#prelim. AIR said it will continue to roll out survey results throughout the summer and the 2020-2021 academic year.

District response to COVID-19

The preliminary survey data showed that on average, students in early elementary grades, K-2, were expected to spend 2.2 hours each day on instructional activities. In contrast, students in grades 9-12 were expected to spend 3.9 hours per day. Expectations, however, ranged widely across districts. In K-2, some districts expected less than an hour each day, while others expected more than three hours. This amount is generally less than the daily instruction required by states under normal circumstances, according to information from the Education Commission of the States. For instance, in several states, students in grades 9-12 are required to complete about six hours of instruction per day.

On average, these instructional time expectations during the pandemic were higher in low-poverty districts than in high-poverty districts. For instance, in grades K-2, students in low-poverty districts were expected to spend an average of 2.5 hours per day on instructional activities, while students in high-poverty districts were expected to spend 2.1 hours. In grades 9-12, students in low-poverty districts were expected to spend an average of 4.2 hours per day on instructional activities, while students in high-poverty districts were expected to spend 3.7 hours.

Due to differing levels of access to technology and connectivity, students in high-poverty districts were more likely to use physical materials – such as paper packets – while those in low-poverty districts were more likely to use digital materials.

The results also show that most districts emphasized new content rather than primarily reviewing content that had already been covered by the time school buildings closed; however, students in high-poverty districts were more likely to focus on reviewing content than their peers in low-poverty districts.

Open-ended questions

The survey asked three open-ended questions about innovative approaches, challenges and topics school leaders would like to discuss with other districts. Several themes emerged among the early responses, including innovative approaches used to support social and emotional needs. For instance, one leader described how their districts sought to regularly engage with every student: “We have an approach called ‘Every kid, every week,’ which means that we make contact with every single student at least once a week. If they don’t interact with us digitally, then we call. If they don’t take a phone call, then we show up at their house. This approach has helped us learn of some specific needs that students have and (has) also helped us keep our engagement high.”

School leaders also shared some of the keys to successful remote learning. For instance, one respondent wrote that previous investments in technology and teacher training paid dividends during the pandemic. The district also benefited from homing in on the essential parts of the curriculum.

“We focused on stripping down the learning objects to the essential standards that needed to be completed and did those well to make sure our gaps are limited for next year,” the school leader said in their response.

The National Survey of Public Education’s Response to COVID-19, funded and managed by AIR, has been sent to 2,500 school districts, as well as 260 charter management organizations, and responses will be collected through the end of July. The survey covers several topics, including the timing of school closures due to COVID-19; challenges and approaches to distance learning; supporting students with disabilities and English learners; district policies and requirements; staffing and human resources and health, well-being and safety. NORC at the University of Chicago administered the survey.

Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, the American Institutes for Research is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of education, health and workforce development. For more information, visit https://www.air.org.