On this episode of Policy Outsider, guest Leigh Wedenoja, senior policy analyst at the Institute, outlines existing and future challenges imposed by COVID-19 on students and the education system.

Millions of Americans are adjusting to education going suddenly and fully online. The school year will likely finish online and, without a vaccine, schooling will likely be partially or fully online next fall. In this episode, Wedenoja explores how students at all ages will be affected by the disruption to their schooling and how the disruptions of COVID-19 make it difficult to plan for the challenges students are likely to face.


Leigh Wedenoja, Senior Policy Analyst, Rockefeller Institute of Government

  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors. 

    Alexander Morse 00:05

    Over the last several weeks we have been covering how different aspects of life are affected by the coronavirus. We talked about the state of the economy and what federal relief is in the US Cares Act, and we also discussed the transition to working from home. Today, we’ll be discussing another group whose lives are upended due to the coronavirus—students. This is Policy Outsider. I’m your host, Alex Morse. Across the country, there are K-12 schools and colleges closed and transitioning to online learning. But what are some of the existing and upcoming challenges schools and students will face? Dr. Leigh Wedenoja, senior policy analyst at the Rockefeller Institute, joins us today to discuss the risks of lost school time, how schools are trying to adjust, and what students, families, and caregivers can do to improve the learning-from-home experience. Next.

    Alexander Morse 01:18

    Hi, Leigh. Thanks for coming on today.

    Leigh Wedenoja 01:20

    Glad to be here.

    Alexander Morse 01:21

    At the top of the podcast I mentioned you’ve been researching and writing about the coronavirus and its effect on education, both K-12 and postsecondary. You also put together some strategies to improve the learning-from-home experience, which we’ll get to towards the end. But back in early- to mid-March, when stay-at-home orders were starting and schools were closing, I think we were all hopeful that this would be short lived, and schools would be open and back in a couple of weeks. But as time went on, school stayed closed. We recognized that they may remain closed throughout the end of the semester. New York State hasn’t officially closed K-12 schools as the governor is evaluating options, but the most recent directive was that K-12 schools are staying closed until at least May 15. That’s still subject to change. (EDITOR NOTE: And change it has. On Friday, May 1, Governor Cuomo announced that schools will be closed through the end of the school year.) All of that just sums up that we live in a time of uncertainty and it’s likely that uncertainty will continue.

    Leigh Wedenoja 02:29

    Yes, I think one of the things that’s most important to keep in mind is that there’s a lot of uncertainty over when students are going to be able to go back to school, what that’s going to look like, whether or not they’re going to be jumping immediately into the next year, or even if schools will be able to reopen in the same way they’ve opened before. It could be that we’re going back sitting with a desk in between every student. The most important thing though to keep in mind is we really don’t know how this is going to affect students at all. We can make guesses based on past research. But most past research that looks at time students spend out of school looks at either the effect of summer vacation or the effect of short periods of absence like snow days. We’re starting from this new point that we’re adapting imperfect research to address.

    Alexander Morse 03:23

    Based on those shorter periods of study, what do researchers find and what might we expect of longer gaps of school closures?

    Leigh Wedenoja 03:32

    Being out of school is not great for students and it’s not great for students of any age. School districts that have shorter time periods before exams, students tend to have lower scores on the exams, and countries that have shorter school years also have lower exam scores. This is particularly true of summer vacation where some estimates show that students lose up to a month of their previous learning just over the summer. Essentially, the summer takes away an entire month of school. What we’re likely to see, both with the imperfect transition to online schooling combined with this year’s summer vacation is a similar if not even more extreme learning loss. It’s likely that it’s going to hit disadvantaged kids, those who don’t have access to technology, to enrichment resources, to highly educated parents; and older students who don’t have as much time to make up for what they’ve lost in their school careers.

    Alexander Morse 04:32

    Why do you think that there’s going to be a learning loss when we transition to online education outside of the access and equity issues? What’s fundamentally different about learning from home?

    Leigh Wedenoja 04:42

    I think the best way to talk about what’s fundamentally different about learning at home is to talk about each education level separately. For especially very young elementary school students, we’re talking third grade and under, it’s very hard for a student to learn on a screen without an active engagement from an adult or a much older student working with them. They have a lower attention span. They need multiple forms of repetition in order to understand new and complex concepts. They also have weaker decoding skills when it comes to reading when they encounter words that they are not familiar with and it’s much harder for them to parse out the meaning and the pronunciation of the word from both context and phonics. If you have parents who are working at home or who are essential workers, and then you have these students trying to learn online, they’re just not going to be able to do that without parental guidance, which if parents are working full-time, is going to be nearly impossible. That’s your earliest elementary school issue. Then when you talk about later elementary school to middle school and early high school, you have the standard preteen disorganization/distraction but also skills with technology, where they may be able to pay attention to their teachers teaching over the internet, but they could also be texting their friends at the same time. Without parental supervision, it might be very easy to not pay attention. Also, teachers will miss a lot of those nonverbal cues from students that they are confused, distracted, don’t know what’s going on. Just think about your computer screen broken up into 30 little windows and try to figure out every single person’s facial expression as to whether or not they understand algebra, that’s just not going to happen.

    Alexander Morse 06:35

    That’s a great example.

    Leigh Wedenoja 06:38

    Then for high school students, for some of these students, they really are running out of time. Students are losing potentially months of school, which leading up to getting into the workforce and getting into college doesn’t just mean losing some algebra or some trigonometry skills, it could mean lower SAT scores and ACT scores. It could mean becoming so far behind that they cannot pass exit examinations in some states or that they become so frustrated when they returned to new course material in the fall that already marginal students may be more likely to drop out of high school. That I think is the real fear for high school students is that a lot of marginal students could be pushed over the edge. We have been very good in this country about increasing graduation rates, decreasing the dropout rate. In 2018, we had the highest recorded graduation rate of all time, which I believe was 82 or 83 percent, which isn’t nearly high enough. That’s nearly two in 10 kids still not graduating from high school. But I think we’re going to see one of the first upticks in the dropout rate, as marginal students decide that they’re not coming back in the fall or they’re not going to finish those couple credits that they need, and just transition either into the workforce or if we’re still in lockdown transition into nothing, at least temporarily.

    Alexander Morse 08:08

    I imagine for the high school seniors and juniors that it’s not just the learning loss as well, but maybe a social loss. They’re not going to have contacted their guidance counselors or maybe a group of friends who are applying to colleges.

    Leigh Wedenoja 08:21

    High school seniors and juniors, other than people who are directly affected by the illness, I think, are the people who are going to hold some of these social scars well into their lives. I mean, we care a lot about high school graduation and starting college. It’s a very important social distinguishing point in a lot of our lives. They’re having their proms canceled. They’re having their graduations canceled. My cousin is a high school senior and she understands why this is happening but she’s still very sad about it. Juniors are going to miss that key preparation for college time. At least for seniors, those who had applied for colleges, those acceptances that had already been in the works, whether or not they’re going to be able to attend in-person classes in the fall, I think, is still up in the air. But you’re seeing a lot of kids, generally 17-19, whose entire lives have become this big question mark, even though they had done the best they could to be in the right place for college or for career.

    Alexander Morse 09:29

    Are you aware of any initiatives or addressing focus onto this group of kids?

    Leigh Wedenoja 09:34

    There have actually been quite a few attempts, everything from school districts to celebrities, to try to do things like online graduations and online proms. Parents have been throwing their kids proms and sweet 16s and 21st birthday parties in their homes, which I think is an incredibly important thing to do because it does mark these milestones in an important way. As well as they possibly can. There really isn’t a way to mitigate some of this damage online. I know the College Board is trying very hard to find a way to get students credit for these AP classes they’ve taken. They’re holding online examinations. I think that is a good idea but also potentially problematic because students are going to have different sorts of access to technology and imagine trying to take an online AP course over a smartphone because your family doesn’t own a laptop. I mean, that’s going to put certain students at a severe disadvantage that they might not have if they just came up with a system to allow them to take the exam in the future. I think these are things that have to be weighed when it comes to giving credit for online courses and for these high school milestones.

    Alexander Morse 11:01

    You just touched on access and equity issues and I think we can dive into that a little bit more. What are some of the challenges of transitioning to online learning?

    Leigh Wedenoja 11:09

    There are a lot of issues with transitioning to online learning. I think anyone who’s tried to have what is generally a fairly simplistic in-person meeting over Zoom and have someone’s screen freeze, someone not being able to use their microphone, these have all become funny tropes. But when it comes to education, they can be extremely damaging to students who are already having trouble. Students who are going to face these issues are far more likely to be economically disadvantaged students and to be students who live in rural areas or areas that do not have broadband. I’m looking at my desk right now and I have four different screens that I could use to do work online sitting with me right now. But there are families that instead of having four screens for one person, have one screen for four people, and if mom needs to work to bring in money, then she’s going to be the one using the screen not the child who needs the screen to do online education. I think that that is a real risk and so, I think, a lot of the standard socioeconomic inequalities that contribute to both the black/white test score gap and also the income test score gap are going to become exasperated because it’s no longer just access to technology and access to money for enrichment, it’s access to technology for basic education and it’s extremely divided. I think it’s going to be more apparent in K-12, but this also applies to college students as well. College students, especially those who are high achieving but from low-income backgrounds, are not only facing difficulties with technology and owning the appropriate technology to attend their online courses, especially if they’re used to doing work in the school’s library. But many of these students may also not have safe home environments or have stable home environments anymore, where they have just a room that they can shut the door and be by themselves to study quietly. You can’t go to the library anymore. In most of the country, it’s still too cold to go outside and find even a quiet tree in a park to study. I personally spent most of my college experience studying in the law library because it was eerily silent. I don’t know if I would be where I am today if I had had to be constantly shutting out noise and distractions.

    Alexander Morse 13:48

    Wow. It’s amazing to think about how these problems can continue, like rolling down the hill. It just keeps unfolding one problem after another and it’s not necessarily just going to get solved with more money, but the schools need more money.

    Leigh Wedenoja 14:03

    I think there’s a long-term debate in education, specifically K-12 education, having additional funding actually does result in higher student achievement and more learning. However, I don’t think we can make those arguments when it comes to online learning because there is a distinct lack of the kind of technology that students need in order to be successful in online learning that disadvantaged students do not have. There is an easy monetary solution for a lot of this that doesn’t exist in standard K-12 education. I mean, there’s entire literature on this but if a student doesn’t have a screen that they can interact with their teacher on, they need a screen. If they do not have access to broadband internet, they need broadband internet. That is true for, these days, kindergarteners through PhD candidates. More money or more resources would actually help with that situation in a way that we haven’t been able to prove is true for other kinds of education for a long time.

    Leigh Wedenoja 14:07

    So the immediate challenge that comes to mind is that states are broke. They’re not going to be able to fund these initiatives or get schools back up and running.

    Leigh Wedenoja 15:19

    States are broke, I did listen to Cuomo’s daily briefing every day. We are broke in New York. I cannot imagine its better in any other state. We do need the federal government, I think, to step in and really spend money both now during the COVID-19 crisis to get, particularly, infrastructure and broadband access to students who do not have it and to get basic screen technology to them. Especially if we end up having to do some additional quarantining in the fall. I think there’s a real possibility that for the next 12 to 18 months before we have a vaccine, I don’t think we’re going to be closed that entire time, but I do think it’s likely that we will do some starting and stopping and that there may be additional periods of time in which schools are out for a few weeks or a month at a time for the next year. That’s going to compound a lot of this learning loss that we found over various summer vacations. If we’re doing this halting open and close, stop and start. Once we do have a vaccine, and once that is rolled out, and once we can go back to normal, we’re also talking about a lot of students that are going to be dramatically behind. A lot of students for whom we will not even know that they’re dramatically behind because we’ve essentially stopped any sort of standardized testing at the moment. What that’s going to mean is we’re going to need additional funding likely from the federal government to ramp that testing back up to provide additional instructional capacity to get students back up to where they need to be. That is far from impossible. There are a number of excellent research studies into how we close the gap between lower-performing and higher-performing students that have found successful strategies, from one-on-one tutoring to aps geared towards helping parents teach their kids math. I recommend anyone with an elementary school student to immediately download Bedtime Math, it’s a bedtime story about math. UChicago tested it and it does improve math scores, especially for kids whose parents are afraid of math. So I think that funding those kinds of evidence-based initiatives, as we sit through the stop/start and then as we return back, is going to make a big difference in making sure that kids who happen to be in school now don’t suffer from this period for the rest of their lives by being behind or by missing key skills.

    Alexander Morse 18:02

    You started a little bit, but in the interim, what can students, parents, and caregivers do to improve their learning from home experience?

    Leigh Wedenoja 18:11

    I think the most important thing is don’t panic. It’s such an easy thing to say but it’s also such a hard thing to do because there are real things to worry about beyond whether or not you are sick or healthy, which of course is the most important thing. But it is a real fear that this time away from learning, this time away from pure friendships at school could be detrimental. Cut yourself some slack parents, caregivers, and guardians, and have fun with your kids. It’s okay to miss a day of school. It’s okay to miss a day of online school if you cannot handle it, if it’s too stressful, if it’s making everyone learn less or function less because they’re trying to keep to a rigid schedule. You can focus on the little things that keep students engaged in both their reading skills and their socio-emotional skills and in their math skills. We talk a lot about that in our piece on quarantined slide. Playing games just with basic math or reading concepts in them can be both stress relieving and actually help kids maintain those skills. Don’t worry too much about making sure that kids get constant education. But keep these aspects, keep these attributes within your daily lives so that you have a place to come back from once things do go back to normal. Do not drive yourself insane. Do not clutter your house with too many math worksheets that you’re not even sure how to teach to your kids because that will help no one, especially you.

    Alexander Morse 19:58

    Noted, I will call my brother up. He’s got this all taken care of. He’s got two little ones at home.

    Leigh Wedenoja 20:05

    I’ve been talking quite a bit to a close friend of mine who’s a kindergarten teacher and just imagine trying to teach kindergarten online. A lot of what she does is she records herself reading books to the kids, pointing things out, sounding out words, because at that age, I don’t know if anyone remembers that Blue’s Clues used to show the same episode every single day of the week. The reason they did that is because adults think it’s the same episode, but kids actually notice different things each time. That’s the way they learn. They pick up more material. So by having teachers make these recordings rather than just doing this immediate face-to-face, the kids want to watch that over and over and over again, because to them, it actually is different every time. Any parent whose kids want to watch Frozen every day, same thing. To them, it’s a different movie. So it’s okay to just let your kids watch Frozen again.

    Alexander Morse 21:03

    Let it go.

    Leigh Wedenoja 21:05

    Exactly. Let it go.

    Alexander Morse 21:12

    Thanks again to Dr. Leigh Wedenoja, for taking the time to discuss how education is affected by the coronavirus. You can check out her two most recent pieces Preventing Quarantine Slide and What to Expect When You Weren’t Expecting Online Classes on our website at rockinst.org. Stay well and stay healthy. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Alexander Morse 21:46

    Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State and the nation. Learn more at rockinst.org or by following RockefellerInst on social media. Have a question, comment, or idea? Email us at [email protected].

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Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.

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