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Learning in the Midst of a Pandemic: Four Key Education Takeaways

Learning in the Midst of a Pandemic: Four Key Education Takeaways

Mar 25, 2020
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Let’s apply the lessons we are learning and find new ways to make progress together.

Photo By: damircudic

We are living in unprecedented times. To reduce the spread of COVID-19, more than 130 countries have closed schools entirely, impacting 80 percent of the world’s student population. Here in the United States, at least 46 states have shut down their schools, sending more than 50 million children home. Parents don’t know how long they will need to care for and educate their children while simultaneously attending to employment obligations—if they are lucky enough to still have jobs. School closures pose especially serious challenges for students with disabilities, children who rely on schools to provide breakfast or lunch daily, and families who lack reliable Internet access or computers. Meanwhile, educators across the country are trying to figure out how to serve students from a distance, effectively and equitably.

I’m grateful to work for an organization that maintains a pulse on the impact of real-time issues affecting students in a time of crisis. Mathematica works with our partners to use data to measure how access to resources affects student outcomes. As a member of my town’s local school board for the past four years, I’ve also had the honor of supporting school administrators facing difficult decisions.

Based on my experiences as an education researcher, a parent, and a school board member, I suggest four key takeaways we should be considering right now.

1. Effective digital learning requires resources and coordination. Many schools will close for more than a few weeks and perhaps through the end of the school year. Schools must seek alternatives to classroom-based instruction. A smooth transition to digital learning requires that (1) all students have access to technology and the Internet; (2) teachers have the training, support, and expertise to use remote technology to drive instruction aligned with their planned curriculum; and (3) parents and caregivers are equipped to support and oversee students’ participation in digital learning activities. Achieving these requirements takes time and coordination.

Some schools with ample resources have been able to jump right in and provide digital lessons and activities, but many public schools have far less experience and assets. These schools are scrambling to determine which families need laptops or tablets and Wi-Fi access. They are reaching out through a variety of means, contacting families eligible for the free and reduced-price lunch program, and broadly distributing mailings and phone calls. School leaders are working with teachers to provide guidance on next steps as they await guidance from state and federal leaders about what they legally can and cannot provide and what accountability requirements remain. Teachers are considering class instruction through platforms such as Zoom, student self-paced digital learning activities, or distribution of paper learning packets. And many teachers have their own families that need their support.

These unparalleled times underscore key issues that extend beyond our current crisis. As our education system moves toward remote learning, schools need to collect information on families’ technology needs. Teachers need training and supports to use technology in and outside the classroom. And school leaders and teaching staff need a strong understanding of how to integrate technology to support learning while ensuring data privacy. Fortunately, there are free resources available for school leaders to access now.

School leaders who are trying different strategies to educate students while their schools are closed can collect outcome data and then use our free Evidence to Insights Coach (e2i) Coach to inform decisions about what technology strategies and tools are most effective for their students.

2. Serving all students equitably requires intentional effort. Educators are being flooded with links to online learning resources and must comb through them to determine whether they align with their curriculum and are accessible to all youth as required by law. Federal statutes require this accessibility to everyone, including those with disabilities or language barriers, unless provisions are made to provide alternate access. Such provisions would include, for example, speech recognition software for those who are visually impaired, or closed-captioning or translation services for those with hearing or language barriers.

School districts initially received guidance from the federal government that they could not mandate learning activities that did not serve all students equitably. Many districts then launched “enrichment” activities rather than requirements. More recent guidance encourages schools to provide distance education and think creatively about ways to support those with special needs (for example, individualized phone conversations and teletherapy). Special education leaders are brainstorming how to deal with a variety of issues, such as whether and how to develop individualized education plans and what kinds of compensatory services will make up for lost time once this crisis has ended. Organizations such as the Public Broadcasting System are stepping up to partner with state education agencies to support educational programming and resources. Despite best intentions, students with greater needs might fall behind at a faster pace than their classmates.

We already know that students living in economically under-resourced settings and those with special needs lag in academic growth. Mathematica partners with educators in understanding how to close this gap. For example, we constructed a school-level growth measure for kindergarten to grade 3 to make student growth in early elementary grades more visible to inform educational investments. We also study promising learning approaches, provide technical support for data-driven decision making, and examine best practices for educators’ professional development, including online learning communities so that teachers in different locations can meet without having to travel. Moving forward, our research community will continue to work with federal, state, and local partners, as well as philanthropy partners, to learn about promising approaches to reducing the achievement gap.

3. Some families rely on schools for their children’s nutritional needs. School closures have made one fact highly visible: many children rely on schools for healthy breakfasts and lunches. Given business closures, more families than ever might be struggling to put food on the table. Communities across the country have rallied to support these families—for example, public and private organizations in my town have partnered to identify families in need and prepare and distribute daily meals.

Mathematica’s research on supports to reduce hunger provides some useful guidance. In her recent blog post on food insecurity, my colleague Ronette Briefel discussed the need to increase awareness of this issue and consider strategies to ensure that families have access to healthy meals year round. In particular, programs to promote food security when school is out during the summer provide useful prototypes for providing nutrition assistance during the summer months to reduce food insecurity when schools are closed.

4. Supporting the physical and social emotional well-being of youth is as important as supporting their learning. Emotional health was a rising priority for educators even before the coronavirus epidemic. Now it has become critical. Shielding children from the news is nearly impossible. They have been asked to shelter at home and avoid physical interaction with their friends.

In response, schools are promoting resources on mindfulness and yoga. Museums and not-for-profit organizations are providing enriched online programming. And we’ve all come to understand the power and promise of art and music to lift spirits, with famous writers, artists, and musicians sharing their work online. Although this underscores the critical importance of emotional health, physical activity plays a key role in well-being, as studies of programs like Playworks, which is now offering online recess programming, have shown.

We don’t need to measure stress right now to know that we are all feeling it. We will get through this together, and we will be forever changed. Let’s apply the lessons we are learning in the wake of this challenge and find new ways to make progress together, advancing the well-being of our nation’s children, youth, and families.

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