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Covid-19 Education Research for Recovery

Emily Rauscher, Ailish Burns.

Mixed evidence on the relationship between school closure and COVID-19 prevalence could reflect focus on large-scale levels of geography, limited ability to address endogeneity, and demographic variation. Using county-level CDC COVID-19 data through June 15, 2020, two matching strategies address potential heterogeneity: nearest geographic neighbor and propensity scores. Within nearest neighboring pairs in different states with different school closure timing, each additional day from a county’s first case until state-ordered school closure is related to 1.5%-2.4% higher cumulative COVID-19 deaths per capita (1,227-1,972 deaths for a county with median population and deaths/capita). Results are consistent using propensity score matching, COVID-19 data from two alternative sources, and additional sensitivity analyses. School closure is more strongly related to COVID-19 deaths in counties with a high concentration of Black or poor residents, suggesting schools play an unequal role in transmission and earlier school closure is related to fewer lives lost in disadvantaged counties.

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Andrew Camp, Gema Zamarro.

A growing body of research and popular reporting shows racial differences in school modality choices during the COVID-19 crisis, with white students more likely to attend school in person.  This in-person learning gap raises serious equity concerns. We use unique panel survey data to explore possible explanations. We find that a combination of factors may explain these differences. School districts’ offerings, political partisanship, and local COVID-19 outbreaks are all meaningfully associated with and plausibly explain the in-person learning racial gap. As schools start offering more in-person learning, significant efforts may be necessary to ensure that families and students attend those in-person learning opportunities.

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Qing Zhang, Maria Sauval, Jade M. Jenkins.

COVID-19 has created acute challenges for the child care sector, potentially leading to a shortage of supply and a shrinking sector as the economy recovers. This study provides the first comprehensive, census-level evaluation of the medium-term impacts of COVID-19 on the county child care market in a large and diverse state, North Carolina. We also document the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on different types of providers and disadvantaged communities. We use data from two time points (February and December) from 2018 to 2020 and a difference-in-differences design to isolate the effects of COVID-19. We find that COVID- 19 reduced county-level child care enrollment by 40%, and reduced the number of providers by 2%. Heterogeneity analyses reveal that family child care providers experienced not only less severe reductions in enrollment and closures than center providers, but a small growth in the number of family providers. Declines in enrollment were most substantial for preschool-aged children. COVID-19 did not appear to further exacerbate inequities in terms of enrollment amongst low-income communities, communities with a larger share of Black residents, or rural communities, although communities with a larger share of Hispanic residents had more provider closures. Our findings underscore the importance of family child care providers in the child care sector and providing continuing and targeted support to help the sector through this crisis. Implications for future policies are discussed.

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Drew H. Bailey, Greg J. Duncan, Richard J. Murnane, Natalie Au Yeung.

A survey targeting education researchers conducted in November, 2020 provides both short- and longer-term predictions of how much achievement gaps between low- and high-income students in U.S elementary schools will change as a result of COVID-related disruptions to schooling and family life. Relative to a pre-COVID achievement gap of 1.00 SD, respondents’ median forecasts for increases in achievement gaps in elementary school by spring, 2021 were very large – from 1.00 to 1.30 and 1.25 SD, respectively, for math and reading. Researchers forecast only small reductions in gaps between spring 2021 and 2022. Although forecasts were heterogeneous, almost all respondents predicted that gaps would grow during the pandemic and would not return to pre-pandemic levels in the following school year. We discuss some implications of these predictions for strategies to reduce learning gaps exacerbated by the pandemic as well as the mental models researchers appear to employ in making their predictions.

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Matt Grossmann, Sarah Reckhow, Katharine Strunk, Meg Turner.

The COVID-19 pandemic created enormous challenges for public education. We assess the role of political factors and public health in state and local education decisions, especially the continuation of learning during COVID-19. Using an original dataset of state education policies since the start of the pandemic, we find that governors took the lead on ordering school closures in Spring 2020 but left decisions to districts in the Fall, regardless of partisanship. Partisanship played a much stronger role in local decisions than state decisions. We analyze local district reopening plans and public opinion on reopening in the politically competitive state of Michigan. Partisanship was much more associated with district reopening plans than COVID-19 rates. Republicans in the Michigan public were also far more favorable than were Democrats toward in-person learning. States' decisions to leave reopening plans to their districts opened the way for students’ experiences to be shaped by their area's partisanship.

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Michela Carlana, Eliana La Ferrara.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the governments of most countries ordered the closure of schools, potentially exacerbating existing learning gaps. This paper evaluates the effectiveness of an intervention implemented in Italian middle schools that provides free individual tutoring online to disadvantaged students during lock-down. Tutors are university students who volunteer for 3 to 6 hours per week. They were randomly assigned to middle school students, from a list of potential beneficiaries compiled by school principals. Using original survey data collected from students, parents, teachers and tutors, we find that the program substantially increased students’ academic performance (by 0.26 SD on average) and that it significantly improved their socio-emotional skills, aspirations, and psychological well-being. Effects are stronger for children from lower socioeconomic status and, in the case of psychological well-being, for immigrant children.

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Beth Schueler, Martin R. West.

We study an early effort amid the Covid-19 pandemic to develop new approaches to virtually serving students, supporting teachers, and promoting equity. This five-week, largely synchronous, summer program served 11,769 rising 4th-9thgraders. “Mentor teachers” provided PD and videos of themselves teaching daily lessons to “partner teachers” across the country. We interviewed a representative sample of teachers and analyzed educator, parent, and student surveys. Stakeholders perceived that students made academic improvements, and the content was rigorous, relevant, and engaging. Teachers felt their teaching improved and appreciated receiving adaptable curricular materials. Participants wanted more relevant math content, more differentiated development, and less asynchronous movement content. Findings highlight promising strategies for promoting online engagement and exploiting virtual learning to strengthen teacher development. 

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Matthew A. Kraft, Grace Falken.

In this thought experiment, we explore how tutoring could be scaled nationally to address COVID-19 learning loss and become a permanent feature of the U.S. public education system. We outline a blueprint centered on ten core principles and a federal architecture to support adoption, while providing for local ownership over key implementation features. High school students would tutor in elementary schools via an elective class, college students in middle schools via federal work-study, and full time 2- and 4-year college graduates in high schools via AmeriCorps. We envision an incremental, demand-driven expansion process with priority given to high-needs schools. Our blueprint highlights a range of design tradeoffs and implementation challenges as well as estimates of program costs. Our estimates suggest that targeted approaches to scaling school-wide tutoring nationally, such as focusing on K-8 Title I schools, would cost between $5 and $15 billion annually.

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James D. Paul, Patrick J. Wolf.

Virtual charter schools provide full-time, tuition-free K-12 education through internet-based instruction. Although virtual schools offer a personalized learning experience, most research suggests these schools are negatively associated with achievement. Few studies account for differential rates of student mobility, which may produce biased estimates if mobility is jointly associated with virtual school enrollment and subsequent test scores. We evaluate the effects of a single, large, anonymous virtual charter school on student achievement using a hybrid of exact and nearest-neighbor propensity score matching. Relative to their matched peers, we estimate that virtual students produce marginally worse ELA scores and significantly worse math scores after one year. When controlling for student mobility during the outcome year, estimates of virtual schooling are slightly less negative. These findings may be more reliable indicators of the independent effect of virtual schooling if matching on mobility proxies for otherwise unobservable negative selection factors.

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Michael T. Hartney, Leslie K. Finger.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity to examine how local governments respond to a public health crisis amid high levels of partisan polarization and an increasing tendency for local issues to become nationalized. As an arena that has, in recent years, been relatively separate from national partisan divides, public schools provide a useful window into these dynamics. Leveraging the fact that all of the nation’s school districts had to adopt a reopening plan for the fall, we test what factors best predict whether a district chose to return students to the classroom or educate them remotely. Contrary to the conventional understanding of school districts as localized and non-partisan actors, we find evidence that politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making. Mass partisanship and teacher union strength best explain how school boards approached reopening. Additionally, we find evidence that districts are sensitive to the threat of private school exit. Districts located in counties with a larger number of Catholic schools were less likely to shut down and more likely to return to in-person learning. These findings have important implications for our understanding of education policy and the functioning of American local governments.

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