While it’s no secret that pandemic-induced remote learning was a disaster for almost all students in 2020 and 2021, we must remind ourselves that in-person education models weren't so great for a lot of kids even before the plague struck. It’s also clear that some students fared better than others while learning from home. What we are still trying to understand is why some students seem to have weathered the transition to remote instruction better than others. A new report digs into Tennessee data from the early days of the pandemic to document what the experience was like for schools and students and to add detail to the larger picture.
The researchers utilized multiple data sources to capture school and district characteristics, estimates of community-level broadband access, open-ended responses from over 10,000 Volunteer State teachers surveyed in spring 2020 regarding technological challenges and types of remote instruction, and school district policy responses related to technology needs.
Prior to the pandemic, 91 percent of Tennesseans had broadband availability (i.e., at least one provider offering fixed high-speed broadband services in their census tract) and 78 percent of households had at least one computer with a high-speed broadband subscription. While the predictable gaps were found between urban and rural and richer and poorer families, the overwhelming prevalence of internet access in the state is certainly eye-opening.
Once the pandemic—and school closures—began, 68 percent of surveyed teachers reported regularly sending electronic learning resources to students via email or learning management systems such as Google Classrooms and Class Dojo. Thirty-three percent reported regularly sending physical learning resources home with students, and 28 percent reported regularly holding synchronous virtual classes or tutoring sessions with students. Rural teachers were most likely to report using physical resources (packets or textbooks), while urban teachers were most likely to report holding virtual classes. School-level economic disadvantage was negatively associated with the likelihood of teachers regularly providing electronic learning resources or holding virtual classes and tutoring in all geographic contexts.
While this makes sense if schools were sure that their lower-income families did not have broadband access or a compatible device, the FCC and ACS data throws some doubt on that possibility. Instead of the true broadband and device access information driving decisions in any given area, the researchers show that the percentage of poor students in a district was more likely to determine remote learning type provided. A 10 point increase in the percentage of economically-disadvantaged students in a rural district was associated with a 16 percent decrease in the likelihood that teachers provided electronic resources and an 18 percent decrease in the likelihood that teachers reported regularly holding virtual classes or tutoring sessions. Those decreases were 13 percent and 23 percent in city or suburban district—again, regardless of actual broadband access and subscription in any given area. Districts appeared to have made assumptions as to who did and didn’t have the ability to access virtual offerings and decided their plans based on those assumptions.
Of the 140 districts in the analysis, researchers found that twenty-two had publicly-available plans to distribute devices to at least some students (to make up specifically for those who had no devices), and thirteen districts had public plans to distribute devices to all students, regardless of their home device status. For internet access, sixteen districts had public plans that mentioned community access points (think free Wi-Fi in school parking lots) or distribution of hotspot devices for students to use at home. The districts with plans to distribute devices to all students were more likely to be located in cities or suburbs, serve fewer economically-disadvantaged students on average, and have higher pre-pandemic broadband access. This seems to reinforce the high/low socioeconomic digital divide so well documented in the early stages of the pandemic. But it also indicates that the easier the lift, the more likely districts were to do the work. Only 19 percent of rural and town districts had public plans to distribute devices to some or all students compared with 52 percent of city and suburb districts. And teachers in those rural and town districts who had plans to connect all students were 2.5 times more likely to report regular engagement in virtual classes or tutoring.
It seems simple to blame lack of virtual learning opportunities on a dearth of broadband access, especially for poor students, but this report seems to indicate more may have been at play in those early, chaotic days of the pandemic. The data and findings in this report, however, only go so far. The researchers note caveats related to building-level differences (synchronous versus asynchronous classes, third-party teaching versus district-based teaching, etc.), family-level differences (such as multi-child households required to share a single device), and non-generalizability of findings beyond Tennessee. It is also unfortunate that the researchers were only able to include traditional school districts in the analysis. Charter and private schools may have been more nimble in connecting and continuing to serve their students using creative methods that cut against the findings here.
The messy snapshot we see from March to May 2020 in Tennessee goes a long way to explaining the learning losses that researchers have tallied since that time. It also suggests that negative academic outcomes should not be laid entirely upon “remote learning” as a singular entity. Rather, the version of remote learning students were provided and their ability to engage with it productively and consistently intertwined to produce these results. Getting the larger picture will be important to tell the full story of what happened at the start of the pandemic, even if we are already reaping what was sown then.
SOURCE: Susan Kemper Patrick, Jason A. Grissom, S. Colby Woods, and UrLeaka W. Newsome, “Broadband Access, District Policy, and Student Opportunities for Remote Learning During COVID-19 School Closures,” AERA Open (December 2021).