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Back to School? COVID-19’s Impacts on Students, Families, and Educators

September 16, 2020

Challenges in areas ranging from education to the environment, gender to governance, health to housing don’t exist in a vacuum. Each month, Abt experts from two disciplines explore ideas for tackling these challenges in our monthly podcast, The Intersect. Sign up for monthly e-mail notifications here. Catch up with previous episodes here.

As the school year starts, many kids are still home practicing distance learning. In this episode of The Intersect podcast, we discuss the disparities in COVID-19’s impacts on low-income families and the early education sector. From education to health to economics, education expert Amy Checkoway and infectious disease expert Leigh Mathias assess the challenges and suggest steps to better outcomes.

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Read the Transcript

Eric Tischler: Hi and welcome to The Intersect; I'm Eric Tischler. Abt Associates tackles complex challenges around the world, ranging from improving health and education to assessing the impact of environmental changes. For any given problem, we bring multiple perspectives to the table. We thought it would be enlightening—and maybe even—fun to pair up colleagues from different disciplines, so they can share their ideas and perhaps spark new thinking about how we solve these challenges.

Today, I'm joined by two of those colleagues, Leigh Mathias, and returning to The Intersect, Amy Checkoway. Amy is a skilled senior project manager and public policy expert with more than 20 years of experience working on early education, K to 12 education, social service program evaluations and research studies. Leigh is an infectious disease epidemiologist with over 15 years of experience leading research projects related to infectious diseases, clinical practice improvement, and social health disparities. Welcome!

Amy Checkoway: Thank you.

Leigh Mathias: Thanks a lot, Eric. Great to be here.

Eric: So, as we record this millions of kids around the country will be engaging in some variation of distance learning in response to COVID-19. The decision to employ virtual classes or not has real implications for students and their families. Amy, I know we just released some findings on COVID, distance learning, and early education but, before we get to that, Leigh, can you tell us what CDC is advising school districts to consider as they make the decision to convene, or stay virtual?

Leigh: Yeah, I'd be happy to, Eric. CDC, by and large, their mission is not to direct or to tell individual school districts what is right for them. CDC's aim has mainly been to provide them with a series of tools and things to accomplish that would allow school districts to make their own decisions to make their school environments safer, or as safe as possible. And I wholeheartedly agree with what CDC is recommending here which is that, inevitably, the decision is down to local governments and local superintendents and school administrators to determine what's appropriate for their individual school districts, their children, and their communities.

What CDC has sort of laid out for everyone on the extensive amount of materials that are available on their website is to categorize different risk levels from low to some, to medium, to high risk factors. And then, provide a series of steps that school districts can accomplish to fit into those various buckets of risk. And some of the things that they talk about are whether or not classes are being held in person. And if they're going to be held in person what the size of those classrooms are. And so, they talked about a strictly remote model to a hybrid model, where it's a mix of both at home or remote and in-person. And then strictly in-person, or just limited to in-person interaction.

And then, based on some of those buckets, there's different steps that the school districts can take to improve or reduce their risk factors to their students and staff. So, they talk about the population cohorting that reduces the mixing of groups, separation that can occur within the classroom themselves. And then, address steps to protect yourself as an individual. And we're talking about face masks there, the establishment of social distancing policies, and then any other scheduling things like cleaning and disinfection of those common surfaces.

And I know we're going to ask some questions later on and discuss about some of the disparities that exist within individual communities and school districts to be able to pay for that. Because while CDC is non-regulatory and can come out with all sorts of suggestions, really, where the strain and the headache comes into play for everyone in this country is how to pay for that, and how to encompass it, and incorporate it into our daily lives. But, of course, CDC's website, at, has a plethora of information that's very useful, both for the parents and student facing reader to the sort of school district and administrator level as well.

Eric: Speaking of inequities—which, you're right, I know we want to talk about—Amy, you recently were part of a team that conducted the Early Learning Study at Harvard. And I know we've got some data from that in terms of financial hardship due to COVID. What else have we learned from that study?

Amy: Sure. Thank you, Eric. So, just as context, Abt is partnering with the Zaentz Early Education Initiative, which is out of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, on a large longitudinal study of over 3,000 Massachusetts young children, which we call the Early Learning Study at Harvard. And a couple of weeks ago, we released two reports on the effects of the pandemic, both findings from surveys we conducted in the spring of parents with young children—so, those kids are now in ... or they were in kindergarten and first grade in the spring—as well as with early education and care providers who cared for these families' kids when the kids were younger. I should just note that we also plan to release findings from a survey of elementary school teachers in a couple of weeks, but I'm going to be talking today about the parent and early education and care providers survey findings.

So, what we learned from parents of young children is, even in the spring, when the pandemic was in its first days, the majority of families, not surprisingly, had experienced significant disruptions to their daily lives. And we found really high levels of overall stress and anxiety. Nearly half of the families in our study reported that a family member had already lost, or reduced employment as of the spring, due to COVID-19.

Low income families were more likely to report serious disruptions, including employment disruptions, family illness, and difficulties working from home. And, interestingly, about a quarter of parents and guardians in our sample, and very low income households reported that at least one adult was able to work from home compared to the substantial majority of middle and upper class households, who had an adult who could work from home and watch their kids at the same time.

In terms of education, kids were using technology to receive education since all of the school buildings were closed in the spring. And parents expressed a considerable amount of stress about the quality of the education being provided.

So, in terms of the early education and care providers and what we found there, I first wanted to say that we have, in our study range, really the full mix of early care environments. So, this is community-based centers, head start programs, family childcare providers—which is home-based care—and also public school preschool. And what we learned, which has really been reinforced by numerous studies and media since, is that the early care and education field is particularly vulnerable to the pandemic's economic effects. So, in the spring, although the majority of early care and educators reported still being employed at the time of the survey, many reported that their income had already been affected. Those running family childcare programs were particularly affected and concerned that they would not be able to continue to operate. And there were a lot of concerns, both about physical and mental health wellbeing. And few early educators reported that they had access to supports for mental health, which is concerning.

Obviously, the enormous strain that the pandemic is putting on the childcare sector has huge effects in terms of the economy getting back off the ground. Many programs are operating on really tight margins. Many parents have pulled their kids out of programs due to health concerns, or because they have lost their jobs. The pandemic has driven up costs for some childcare programs because they need additional supplies, and additional staff. And many programs are closing permanently and say they can't survive much longer without government assistance. So, I think this concern came out in the spring and, unfortunately, has only gotten worse throughout the summer and into the fall.

Eric: So, we're talking about the risk of losing educational programs, right on the face of it. And that's for this specific cohort. So, this is already a vulnerable group of students at risk of losing programs that they really need. And, on top of that, there are also inequities in terms of virtual learning itself, in terms of what tools are available, what hardware's available. Can you speak to that a little bit, Amy?

Amy: Sure. Yeah, there is great concern about the pandemic exacerbating existing educational inequities, particularly for low income students, students of color, and children with special needs, as well as English language learners. And I think there are a variety of issues. As you mentioned, disparities in technology access, health and economic concerns from the pandemic, which has disproportionately hit low-income folks and people of color. And related concerns about basic needs, such as housing, food, and healthcare. In terms of educational disparities, there have been some national analyses which found that only about half of the lowest income parents reported in early June that they always had a device available for their kids, or child or children to use for school. And the vast majority of students, on the other hand, from affluent families reported that they always had a device. There were sort of equally wide disparities reported for home internet access.

And in terms of student engagement, again, from some national data that was collected, for example, more than half of teachers in high poverty schools reported that most of their students were participating compared to affluent schools, which the proportion was closer to 84%. So, I think our K-12 system wasn't necessarily serving students equitably before the pandemic. But, I think, one of the issues that the pandemic has really amplified is how much we rely on school systems to meet a variety of kids' needs not just academic ones.

So, for example, when schools shut down it leads to an increase in food insecurity because when low income kids go to school, many get two meals a day from the public school system. And if they're not in school they might not get fed. So, we know in order for kids to learn they need a wide array of essential supports and opportunities outside of school. And I know that there have been a variety of efforts to, again, try to address some of these concerns. But there's a lot of concern that those who were already struggling are going to struggle even more, especially if there's limited access to in-person learning or maybe not access at all over the course of the coming school year.

Eric: Yeah. And I should mention that our Keeping America Fed podcast miniseries addresses just those nutritional issues alone. Leigh, you mentioned at the top, there are inequities in terms of just the health effects, too. You want to talk about that a little bit?

Leigh: Yeah. And one of the things that, Amy, you mentioned, too, that has also facilitated not only nutritional needs, but especially in low income, and racial and ethnic minority communities is these are the sole sources of occupational therapy and mental health therapies for these children that are also facilitated through the local school district. And I don't think we need any argument to identify that nationally we're suffering from an influx or a significant increase in stress, and mental health disorders as a result of this. And that it just further takes another avenue away of access for children in more disparate, and more financially stretched, school districts. And, unfortunately, I think we're all saying this and that it only fully or further exacerbates the issues that lower income communities have. Those communities are the ones that are going to face more of the challenges, and have to deal with less capital and abilities to respond to those.

School districts in lower income and more urban areas are going to be limited by space. The physical facilities of those buildings may not allow for social distancing to occur. If the classrooms normally accommodate 30 or 40 children, but to be properly social distanced you can only have 12 or 13 children in that room it becomes extremely hard for a school district to respond.

And then, we talked about the cost of personal protective equipment, and hand sanitizer, and added cleaning costs. And those are just material costs. But then, added staff hours and labor hours to stock those up, to clean the common areas more rigorously. School districts that have tightened budgets, and even tighter budgets due to whether or not they open or not, and a reduction in enrollment can adversely affect the amount of funding that they receive from the state and federal government. It becomes a cascading issue that we try to want to be responsive to, at the same time, while protecting people's health.

So, I think the bottom line is, is that it's just unfortunate that especially in the environment of COVID, now, it's only further drawing lines of disparity, and issues among communities that were already stretched to the limits, and now have to address these additional needs, and problems with either budgets, and resource abilities that are maintaining, and staying the same. Or, in some cases, drastically reducing. So, unfortunately, the communities that were in trouble before are even further in trouble.

Eric: What can be done to help turn the tide? In terms of, from a health perspective, I know, Leigh, you mentioned the CDC guidance. And then Amy, is there anything we've learned about how we can maybe help shore up these systems that we've got that kids are relying on?

Leigh: A lot of the CDC guidance is just based on the science of reducing risk for exposure and infection. Inevitably, it just goes down to individual communities and school districts assessing what they have available from a space availability, from a labor and staff ability, from a financial ability to purchase these additional cleaning materials and protective equipment. The only caution that I want to make, and CDC is very clear on this, is there is not a one size fits all type of perspective. And the types of things that Amy has talked about too. Creating a menu, a laundry list of things that are available, so that school districts and individual schools can sort of buffet select the things that they need to do to be able to respond to it.

And then, by and large, the last thing that I'd recommend is it all comes down to funding. I mean, funding really helps respond to a lot of different things here from the materials need to purchase, to the added labor of the staff to respond, to be able to buy software platforms, so that it makes it easier for the students, the parents, the staff, to be able to facilitate it. And one thing that I'd like to see is sort of a federal response, a federal fund that becomes available for individual school districts, much like the small businesses, to be able to apply for funding to respond to some of these individual needs, so that they can be supportive to their communities, and the students and the parents.

Eric: Yeah. And we've actually been helping cities and states allocate some of their CARES Act funding to help combat homelessness. And I wonder if we could provide that same technical assistance to the hypothetical educational funding you just mentioned, Leigh. But Amy, what about you? What do you think we can be doing to bolster kids as COVID continues?

Amy: Yeah, I think, that districts are going to have to sort of continuously assess what's working, and what's not. What individual kid's needs are, where they're starting out the school year. How well they're doing with whatever model is in place. I think, it's likely going to be a disruptive school year ahead, where districts may have hybrid approaches, and then need to move to remote approaches, may go back to hybrid. Potentially, some districts are doing full in-person learning, if the health metrics and other factors allow them to.

But I do think sort of adaptiveness and ongoing assessment, because I don't think anyone really knows how effective these different approaches are going to be. And, hopefully, there has been some learning already from what was tried out in the spring. There will need to be sort of ongoing experimentation with different ways of doing things.

And I think, in terms of really making sure that every kid has adults from the school system, who they can check in with about sort of their holistic needs is something that I know some districts are planning to try out, such as every staff in a district having a small number of kids assigned to them. It may or may not be their teacher, but that's sort of their touch point to sort of regularly check in, both with kids and with their families, about not only academic needs, but also if there are sort of any other needs that the school system should be aware of and, potentially, can help connect families to other services in the community.

So, I think it's going to be an interesting time, and there are opportunities for some innovation in terms of education, and really re-imagining curricula and approaches to educating kids in entirely different ways, and sort of restructuring what's happening. And so, maybe that's the silver lining as well.

Eric: Amy, it sounds like you were talking about sort of rapid cycle evaluations maybe. Maybe we could be evaluating what is, and isn't working, and advising as programs need to shift to address more kids, right?

Amy: Absolutely. I think we have a lot of experience working with states to sort of document across school districts how things are going. And, especially, during a time when every district is making a lot of decisions in isolation, I think, the agencies could benefit from continuous examination of how things are going. And, also, some quick turnaround surveys of district leaders, teachers, as well as families to find out what the needs are, and how the state can help best support, ongoing professional development or provide other resources in particular areas.

Eric: Right. And I know that we're working on some COVID-specific survey approaches. Well, obviously, there's a lot that that needs to happen but, hopefully, we can help make it happen. And on that note, thank you both for joining me

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