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Covid-19 Education Research for Recovery

Jeremy Singer.
After near-universal school closures in the United States at the start of the pandemic, lawmakers and educational leaders made plans for when and how to reopen schools for the 2020-21 school year. Educational researchers quickly assessed how a range of public health, political, and demographic factors were associated with school reopening decisions and parent preferences for in-person and remote learning. I review this body of literature, to highlight what we can learn from its findings, limitations, and influence on public discourse. Studies consistently highlighted the influence of partisanship, teachers’ unions, and demographics, with mixed findings on COVID-19 rates. The literature offers useful insight and requires more evidence, and it highlights benefits and limitations to rapid research with large-scale quantitative data.

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Sarah Winchell Lenhoff, Jeremy Singer.

How much school students attend is a powerful indicator of their wellbeing and a strong predictor of their future success in school. Popular media has reported significant increases in chronic absenteeism during the first full school year of the COVID-19 pandemic (2020-21). This sequential explanatory mixed-methods study describes how experiences during the pandemic and socioeconomic circumstances in general shaped Detroit student attendance during this critical school year and how the district responded to attendance issues. We found that 70% of students were chronically absent, with 40% of parents reporting that computer problems contributed to absenteeism. Despite significant investment in technology, the district’s strategies for engaging students were not sufficient in overcoming economic hardships and the new challenges of remote learning.

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Jeremy Singer, Julie A. Marsh, David Menefee-Libey, Jacob Alonso, Dwuana Bradley, Hanora Tracy.

Nearly all schools in the United States closed in spring 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. With a micropolitical lens, we analyze traditional public and charter schools reopenings for the 2020-21 school year in five urban districts. Districts’ adherence to and strategic uses of public health guidance, as well as a combination of union-district relations and labor market dynamics, influenced reopening. Parents, city and state lawmakers, and local institutional conditions also played a role, helping to explain differences across cases. We provide a rich description of reopening decisions in each of our case districts, and offer theoretically-grounded explanations for how factors identified in prior studies—which were interrelated and varied across local contexts—influenced district decision-making.

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Claire McMorris, David S. Knight.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress in 2020 included significant aid to state education systems. These included direct aid to K-12 districts and higher education institutions, and funds to be used at the discretion of Governors through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER). We examine the factors influencing where and how GEER funding was distributed across state K-12 systems and what inequities were introduced in its spending. Using a mixed methods analysis of state GEER spending plans and district-level finance data, we focus specifically on how governors sought to target schools serving disadvantaged student groups. We find that several state leaders decided to send their GEER funds to school districts via funding formulas, and that some Governors made decisions to direct their GEER funds towards certain student groups. State spending patterns were not strongly related to governor political ideology or the states’ existing funding formulas or inter-district resource allocation patterns. We discuss the implications of this policy related to two state case examples, California and New York, and provide insight for future education stimulus funding proposals.

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Robert W. Fairlie, George Bulman.

This paper examines how the pandemic impacted the enrollment patterns, fields of study, and academic outcomes of students in the California Community College System, the largest higher-education system in the country. Enrollment dropped precipitously during the pandemic – the total number of enrolled students fell by 11 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020 and by another 7 percent from fall 2020 to fall 2021. The California Community College system lost nearly 300,000 students over this period. Our analysis reveals that enrollment reductions were largest among Black/African-American and Latinx students, and were larger among continuing students than first-time students. We find no evidence that having a large online presence prior to the pandemic protected colleges from these negative effects. Enrollment changes were substantial across a wide range of fields and were large for both vocational courses and academic courses that can be transferred to four-year institutions. In terms of course performance, changes in completion rates, withdrawal rates, and grades primarily occurred in the spring of 2020. These findings of the effects of the pandemic at community colleges have implications for policy, impending budgetary pressures, and future research.

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Leigh Wedenoja, John Papay, Matthew A. Kraft.

We examine the dynamic nature of student-teacher match quality by studying the effect of having a teacher for more than one year. Using data from Tennessee and panel methods, we find that having a repeat teacher improves achievement and decreases absences, truancy, and suspensions. These results are robust to a range of tests for student and teacher sorting. High-achieving students benefit most academically and boys of color benefit most behaviorally. Effects increase with the share of repeat students in a class suggesting that classroom assignment policies intended to promote sustained student-teacher relationships such as looping may have even larger benefits.

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Andrew Camp, Gema Zamarro, Josh B. McGee.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a trying period for teachers. Teachers had to adapt to unexpected conditions, teaching in unprecedented ways. As a result, teachers' levels of stress and burnout have been high throughout the pandemic, raising concerns about a potential increase in teacher turnover and future teacher shortages. We use administrative data for the state of Arkansas to document the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on teachers’ mobility and attrition during the years 2018-19 to 2021-2022. We find stable turnover rates during the first year of the pandemic (2020-2021) but an increase in teacher mobility and attrition in the second year (2021-2022). Teacher mobility and attrition increased by 2 percentage points (10% relative increase) this second year but with heterogeneous effects across regions and depending on the teacher and school characteristics. Our results raise concerns about increased strain in areas already experiencing teacher shortages and a potential reduction in the diversity of the Arkansas teacher labor force.

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David M. Houston, Matthew P. Steinberg.

In spring 2020, nearly every U.S. public school closed at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Existing evidence suggests that local political partisanship and teachers union strength were better predictors of fall 2020 school re-opening status than Covid case and death rates. We replicate and extend these analyses using data collected over the 2020-21 academic year. We demonstrate that Covid case and death rates were meaningfully associated with initial rates of in-person instruction. We also show that all three factors—Covid, partisanship, and teachers unions—became less predictive of in-person instruction as the school year continued. We then leverage data from two nationally representative surveys of Americans’ attitudes toward education and identify an as-yet undiscussed factor that predicts in-person instruction: public support for increasing teacher salaries. We speculate that education leaders were better able to manage the logistical and political complexities of school re-openings in communities with greater support for educators.

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Matthew A. Kraft, John A. List, Jeffrey A. Livingston, Sally Sadoff.

A substantial body of experimental evidence demonstrates that in-person tutoring programs can have large impacts on K-12 student achievement. However, such programs typically are costly and constrained by a limited local supply of tutors. In partnership with CovEducation (CovEd), we conduct a pilot program that has potential to ease both of these concerns. We conduct an experiment where volunteer tutors from all over the country meet 1-on-1 with middle school students online during the school day. We find that the program produces consistently positive (0.07σ for math and 0.04σ for reading) but statistically insignificant effects on student achievement. While these estimates are notably smaller than those found in many higher-dosage in-person tutoring programs, they are from a significantly lower-cost program that was delivered within the challenging context of the COVID-19 pandemic. We provide evidence that is consistent with a dosage model of tutoring where additional hours result in larger effects.

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Leiah Groom-Thomas, Monica Lee, Cate Smith Todd, Kathleen Lynch, Susanna Loeb, Scott McConnell, Lydia Carlis.

Many preschool agencies nationwide continue to experience closures and/or conversions to virtual or hybrid instruction due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the importance of understanding young children’s learning and development during the COVID emergency, limited knowledge exists on adaptable practices of assessing young children during the pandemic. We detail practices used to assess learning in 336 Head Start children across four states during three different time periods in the 2020-21 school year, using adaptation of traditionally in-person assessments of early numeracy, early literacy, and executive functioning. In doing so, we distill early lessons for the field from the application of a novel, virtual assessment method with the early childhood population. The paper describes adaptations of assessment administration for virtual implementation and incorporation of feedback into continued virtual delivery of assessments. Applications and limitations in broader contexts are discussed.

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