Researchers study trends in Pennsylvania school reopening plans

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The COVID-19 pandemic has presented numerous challenges to school districts across the nation as they have debated options for educating students safely. According to researchers in Penn State’s College of Education, the decision by Pennsylvania school districts to re-open schools in-person, remotely or through a hybrid system is closely tied to the racial demographics of the region, and they recommend a series of steps to support equitable responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by school districts.

“Our hope is to try to help school district leaders in Pennsylvania understand the different ways people are responding (to the pandemic),” said Erica Frankenberg, professor of education (educational leadership) in the Department of Education Policy Studies. “Hopefully, this sharing of knowledge will help inform the work they do.”

Erica Frankenberg

Erica Frankenberg

IMAGE: Steve Tressler

Frankenberg, co-founder and director of the Center for Education and Civil Rights, said that she had initially seen a study specifically look at reopening decisions in relation to school district characteristics being done in other states and decided to conduct a similar study in Pennsylvania with Katharine Dulaney, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Education Policy Studies. Frankenberg and Dulaney recently shared key findings from their study and policy recommendations in a research brief, “Inequity in Pennsylvania School District Reopening Decisions: How Districts’ Mode of Delivery Varies by Region and Student/Community Characteristics.” 

Katharine Dulaney

Katharine Dulaney

IMAGE: Provided by Katharine Dulaney

In order to reopen, Pennsylvania required each of its 500 school districts to submit its own Health and Safety Plan for the 2020-21 academic year outlining the specific protocols each district will follow when COVID-19’s transmission levels are manageable, when they are increasing, and when the risk of transmission is too high for students to gather in-person. The researchers surveyed all 500 districts’ Health and Safety Plans to determine trends in reopening decisions across the state.

In their study, Frankenberg and Delaney focused on decisions to date about how instruction and learning will occur during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the research brief, they reported that across the state, 37% of students are enrolled in districts that have started remotely, and another 40% with hybrid instruction. In contrast, only 24% of students are in districts that have returned in-person.

Additionally, the researchers reported a pronounced racial disparity in the division of school districts that are conducting classes fully or partially in-person versus a completely remote setup. The majority of Pennsylvania’s white students have the option of attending school in-person either full-time or through a hybrid model, while the majority of Black and Hispanic students live in remote-only districts. Twenty-four percent of the state’s white students live in districts that have reopened or plan to re-open with all-virtual instruction, but 72% of the state’s Black students and 61% of the state’s Hispanic students do not have the option of any in-person instruction at this time. These percentages generally track national public opinion differences by race/ethnicity regarding parents’ responses about school re-opening.

While the decision to go remote is “often a choice that districts make due to local community spread of COVID and responsive to the uneven ways in which COVID has affected communities of color,” the researchers stated, the consequences of missing out on the benefits of in-person learning (e.g. food, physical and mental health screenings) are more striking among Black and Latinx children because of how they are more likely to live in districts with remote-only options.

“On the one hand, you do have these health concerns that affect some school districts more than others as a result of differential community transmission and districts had existing variation in terms of facilities that could safely permit in-person schooling according to health guidelines,” said Frankenberg. “On the other hand, research has shown that online learning is not as good for kids in a lot of different ways. In the time of COVID, both options have risks, but the fact remains is that students across Pennsylvania are having different educational experiences as the school year started.”

According to Dulaney, some of the findings in the study corresponded with national trends in school re-openings.

“The larger urban areas are almost all remote and that follows the national trend,” she said. The community size across the board was definitely correlated with the remote decisions.” 

What did surprise Dulaney and Frankenberg, they said, were the struggles with access to broadband internet that the average district in Pennsylvania faces. They found that on average, only 74% to 86% of residents across the state have access to broadband internet.

“A staggering 20% of students, on average, in remote-only districts currently do not have access to high-speed internet,” they wrote in the brief.

While some districts have tried to compensate for the lack of internet access by setting up hotspots, Frankenberg said, “clearly that’s far less ideal when you’re trying to complete a day of school. There may also be inequitable access to computers, space conducive for remote learning, and other factors alongside provision of high-speed internet.”

In their brief, Frankenberg and Dulaney outline several recommendations for federal, state and local government officials to mitigate the disruptions by COVID-19 to the education system.

“Trying to control the spread of the virus is the number-one policy recommendation,” Frankenberg said. “It’s not just COVID but then the response to COVID are two different ways we see of exacerbating inequality. The COVID-19 pandemic further illuminates ways in which structural racism and economic inequality affect public education.”

One of the most important things to help school districts deal with the financial impacts of the pandemic, the researchers stated, is increased state and federal aid. Pennsylvania districts are facing “huge budget shortfalls,” Frankenberg said, as well as declining numbers of teachers.

In addition, Dulaney and Frankenberg recommend that state governments refrain from their typical practice of awarding funding to school districts based on student enrollment counts and attendance.

“Long-term, funding has been based on average daily attendance yet an important health precaution is for students not to go to school if they have COVID exposure or possible symptoms,” Frankenberg said. “Other COVID-related problems may arise for remote-only attendance, such as living in households where family members are essential workers. That puts school districts in really challenging positions.”

Looking toward the remainder of 2020, Dulaney said, she and Frankenberg “hope to keep tabs on how this year plays out since (re-opening) decisions keep changing” and are “ready to keep pivoting due to changing circumstances.”

Frankenberg said that she envisions future research focusing on the duration of the different learning modes and the extent to which school district decisions are related to the spread of COVID-19 within communities.

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