The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic changed the delivery of education across the globe, raising concerns about its long-term consequences on academic achievement and the unequal effect on students from vulnerable and marginalized groups. In our preprint, Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic, we present perspectives of Elementary School teachers across the US and Canada on how school closures impacted the delivery of education for them and their students. We were particularly interested in teachers’ input because of their unique role in continuing education efforts during the pandemic. Throughout the interruptions of in-person classes, when some of the traditional ways to assess academic progress were not available, teachers remained the best-informed source about students’ achievements and struggles.
Our survey was conducted at the end of the 2020-2021 school year, the first one to fully occur in the midst of the pandemic. We were able to get responses from more than 900 teachers across multiple geographical locations. Some were experienced teachers, and some had been teaching for as little as 5 years before the pandemic hit. This group of participants was also diverse in terms of the income level of the students they teach, and the proportion of students coming from minority groups in their classrooms. This was important information since we wanted to ensure that the data we obtained was representative of students coming from different socio-economic contexts.
Around 92% of the teachers we surveyed experienced school closures to some degree and had to switch to online teaching alternatives during that time. On the positive side, most teachers agreed that the majority of their students had access to the digital resources needed to attend online lessons (i.e. computers, internet), regardless of their income level. However, this widespread availability of digital resources did not guarantee that students actually attended class. In fact, teachers indicated that, on average, about 3 in every 10 students were attending inconsistently or were completely absent from class. Moreover, teachers estimate that approximately 5% of students, on average, were completely absent from class during the 2020-2021 school year. This is by no means a small number, and could represent more that 1.5 million students across the US and Canada who were missing education for a long period of time. Notably, teachers with low-income students reported lower numbers of class attendance.
Most of the teachers we surveyed had experience in the past using digital technologies for educational purposes, and additionally, most of them received training specific to online lessons during the pandemic. However, having all teaching practice happening online was an unprecedented challenge for many. Unfortunately, more than half of teachers surveyed expressed that, during the 2020-2021 school year, they were not able to cover all the class content that they typically teach.
When asked about students’ performance, more than half of our participants expressed that their students performed worse during the pandemic, compared to previous years. This result was somewhat expected, given all the disruption that school closures created and the difficulties of implementing remote alternatives. However, not every teacher observed a decrease in the academic performance of their students. Although small, there was a percentage of teachers that believed their students were performing above the expectations for their grade. A further look into our data showed that these perceptions teachers had about learning losses changed dramatically depending on the income level of students in their classrooms. Teachers of low-income students were almost twice more likely to report learning losses, compared to teachers of high-income students.
Further exploration of teachers’ responses revealed some of the elements that may have made high-income household students better suited to take advantage of online education during the pandemic. On one hand, teachers of these students had on average more experience teaching online in the past and were more confident in their own digital skills: only 40% of teachers with high-income students were teaching online for the very first time during the pandemic, in contrast to more than 75% of teachers with low-income students who had never had that experience previously.
Finally, our survey suggests that students’ ability to succeed during online education was greatly influenced by the support that was available to them at home, creating yet another source of inequality since not every family will have the same amount of time and resources to dedicate to homeschooling. At least from the perspectives of the teachers that contributed to our survey, students from high-income households were almost twice as likely to receive support from adults or caregivers during homeschooling, compared to low-income students.
Our survey suggests that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ achievement was not equally distributed. We know that household income has always been an important predictor of future academic achievement, even before the pandemic. But, as education moved from classrooms to homes, children from disadvantaged backgrounds struggled even more to participate in and take advantage of the alternative education methods put in place.
In addition to offering insights into students’ performance, our survey also provides an overview of teachers’ experience with remote instruction. It is noteworthy that approximately 1 out of every 4 teachers who participated in our survey considered retiring during the pandemic, most likely because of the high levels of stress they were exposed to. Throughout all the uncertainty of the school closures, teachers were expected to change and adapt quickly, sometimes without having enough training or resources to do so. At the same time, they carried the great responsibility of bringing education and emotional support to their students, while navigating the effects of a world pandemic themselves. Even now, as schools are open again and we seem to move away from the worst part of the pandemic, teachers will continue to have a critical role in assessing the needs of students and bridging the gap between those who were left behind and those who thrived. Understanding the effects that these demands put on teachers will be critical to preserving their well-being, and critical for the success of any efforts to mitigate the learning losses that students experienced during the pandemic.