Take Note: Education Prof. On How K-12 School Closures Increased Inequities

Jun 26, 2020

Ed Fuller

Pre-K-12 schools in Pennsylvania were closed for the last three months of the school year that just ended, due to coronavirus concerns. Gov. Tom Wolf told schools to move to a digital learning model.

We talked about the effects of the shutdown on students with Ed Fuller, an associate professor in the College of Education at Penn State.   

TRANSCRIPT:

Emily Reddy:

Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I'm Emily Reddy. K-12 schools in Pennsylvania, were closed for the last three months of the school year that just ended due to coronavirus concerns. Governor Tom Wolf told schools to move to a digital learning model. We talked about the effects of the shutdown on students with Ed Fuller, an associate professor in the College of Education at Penn State. Ed Fuller, thanks for joining us.

Ed Fuller:

Thank you for having me.

Emily Reddy:

First. I think those of us without school-aged kids don't have a good sense of what this learning from home has looked like. I mean, I think I kind of pictured it as kids video conferencing into each class throughout the day. But from what I've heard, that is not it at all. Can you give us a sense of what it has looked like?

Ed Fuller:

Yeah. So I have an 8-year-old. So I can give, I can, I can tell you what that's been like andthe first word that comes to my mind is chaotic. Because you have 22 or 24, 8-year-olds trying to do Zoom and not all talk over each other. And then you know, one of the really fantastic things is there's a student with a disability in the class. And so her care worker also Zoomed in and then you have paraprofessionals Zooming in and the student teacher Zooming in. So we had almost 30 people on the Zoom session. And so trying to wrangle all those kids and everybody talking. And then a lot of that was just, you know, "Hey, how are you doing?" Which is super important for kids. And then the, a lot of the assignments were on your own, assuming that there was somebody, you know, either the kid could self-direct and do that, or there was an adult or an older brother or sister who could help them out and make sure that it got done. So that's really...the tricky part at first was connecting. And then everybody learned how to connect well. But the really hard part is like managing the time and getting kids motivated to do homework when they're not showing up in class. And they're not, you know, there's no peer pressure to finish everything like there is when you're sitting in class. It was quite interesting. High school is a whole different story. I don't know what that looked like, but I can't even imagine. I don't even know how they did that. Cause that's... I taught high school. I can't fathom how you would do that well at the high school level.

Emily Reddy:

But parents have to be pretty involved.

Ed Fuller:

Yes, absolutely. The good thing at high school is kids are a little more self directed and motivated, but the level of instruction that you have to do at the high school is so detailed. It's much more difficult to convey that online, I think, than in person. Just rely on the interactions and the questioning so much. It's just harder to do online than it is face to face. And research actually reflects that. Like online learning for K-12, students never do as well as face-to-face. We just can't find, at least up to this point, nobody's found a model that works well with online education that can come even close to the learning environment and learning gains that kids get when they're in a regular classroom.

Emily Reddy:

And, you know, that's with you and many other parents who, you know, have these professional white collar jobs. Able to work from home. And then, you know, what happens when you know, a kid... How is it tougher for kids in lower income families?

Ed Fuller:

Yeah, that's one of the things about the COVID school closures is that we've always had inequities in education. And when we closed schools, those inequities became even more apparent to a much greater number of people. So if you're a child from a lower income family, you may or may not have had parents at home because some of those parents had to work. If you're working at Walmart or you're working as a nurse at the hospital or you know, fire police, they had to go to work. So number one, not everybody could have a parent who stayed home. Or a parent had to quit their job to stay home. But even if they stayed home, a lot of times the parents just don't have the kind of background knowledge to help their students. That's one of the reasons that researchers find that at the K-6, K-7 level, when you send homework home, that actually tends to exacerbate gaps between affluent kids and kids living in poverty. Because the affluent kids have somebody they can ask and then correct their mistakes.

Ed Fuller:

And then the lower income kids often don't have anybody to rely on. And so it's not, and I want to be clear, it's not a blaming of those families or parents. That's just the fact that, you know, they don't have the same kind of knowledge and background. It doesn't mean they don't love their kids. It doesn't mean they're not supporting them in all the ways that they can. It's just differences in backgrounds of the parents. And we need to be aware of that. The other thing, too, is that lower income families are less likely to have access to the internet. And in fact, Centre County is tied with a couple of other counties in having the greatest percentage of families without access to broadband high speed internet. Those families are also less likely to have a separate computer for their children.

Ed Fuller:

You know, when you have to share computers and it gets tricky. Like who gets to use the computer for homework when the parent needs to be on to do their job. And if you don't, you know, it gets really complicated and somebody loses out If you don't have high speed internet accessthen you have to get packets from school and that gets a lot more complicated. You know, just in terms of getting them and turning them back in, and then the teacher has to review them. It's just so much easier if you have your own computer, a space to work that's quiet, and parent resources, and all the things that make it easier to do the homework and turn the homework in. So there's just huge gaps there that became really apparent to a lot of people quickly. We always knew those gaps were there, but I mean, you just can't ignore them when you're doing online learning.

Emily Reddy:

And how have schools dealt with that? Those differences in, in the ways that students are able to do their work?

Ed Fuller:

Yeah, I think there's been a number of different strategies. One is to provide, like, print out the materials and provide them to the students. Some places have delivered them to the students, particularly in rural areas where it's a long way. They send buses around and drop things off and pick things up. I know there's places like in State College you can go in and pick up wifi, although that's not the best solution.

Emily Reddy:

You go out and sit outside the library in your car or something?

Ed Fuller:

Yeah. Or even in the school parking lot, you can access all the things you need to access for school. They block a lot of things because it's a school and you don't want everybody to have access to the entire internet. But you can get your homework done and access all of the learning resources. I know Philadelphia has tried to do, they did mobile hotspots and they parked buses around the city to give some mobile hotspots. What's really disconcerning is that in this time of great need, a lot of the internet providers didn't step up and say, "Hey, we're just gonna, you know, make it free during school hours" or something. They just, you know, even in Philadelphia where Comcast is located, they kept saying, "Oh, we're doing it in Philly schools." And all the parents are like, "There's no internet. We can't get internet access to do our homework."

Ed Fuller:

So it was really disconcerting that, you know, corporations and places didn't step up when we really needed them to, to help some of the lower income families. But it's really difficult. There's nothing... I mean, there's no real good solution that districts can utilize. They did the best they could, but without lots of money and lots of additional resources, there's just no way to solve this problem. Which underscores the need for the federal government to step in and provide some, you know... Why is... If we're going to do online learning and it's so important, why is it not just imperative that every family with school-aged children have free internet access? I mean, that we could do that. That's just a priority, you know. Do we prioritize that in our federal expenditures or not? But it's really important. Not doing that exacerbates the learning gaps that already existed.

Ed Fuller:

One other thing I wanted to mention about that too, is just the inequitable access in resources, online resources. Because some districts like State College or are relatively well-funded and can provide a wealth of internet online resources. I mean I've gone on with my son and there are so many options there that it would take you... I mean, we could go all summer and go on a different site every day. And I mean, it'd take forever to get through everything. And it's just, you know, everything's free and it's easy to access. It's all on one page. Underfunded districts, particularly in like Philly and Redding, and then the rural areas, they don't have the money to provide all those resources. So even if we said, "Hey, everybody has free internet access" and "Everybody has a computer" and "Everybody..." Just the, what you can access on the internet, there's a difference between wealthy districts and districts that are not wealthy. So again, it exacerbates the difference between the haves and the have nots.

Emily Reddy:

And you know, we're all talking about the fall. Will kids be back in school for the fall? You know, there's talk about what would be required -- masks, social distancing, hand sanitizer. Do you think K-12 students will be back in brick and mortar schools in the fall?

Ed Fuller:

I'm guessing a number of districts will try. The issue isn't so much for the kids, because they seem to not be affected by the virus as much. Although we don't know what the longterm effects are, which is a little troublesome. The problem is they often will transmit it to other people. And so if you have a lot of older adults in the school and parents and grandparents at home... I mean, you could really ramp up the infections again. I think people are going to start face-to-face. I don't think it will last very long. Because it's just going to I can't imagine. Reading, reading... I mean, I'm no epidemiologist or infectious disease expert, but reading what they have to say, I just can't imagine that it's not going to spike the infections again. And we'll end up I'm almost a hundred percent confident we will end up in virtual learning again at some point next year. I don't think there's any way we'll make it to Thanksgiving or Christmas without going back to virtual.

Emily Reddy:

And one of the things you study, you mentioned the older people who might be affected. One of the things you study is teacher retention. And you've looked at how, you know, some especially older teachers might not be willing to go back. And there's a study, right?

Ed Fuller:

Yes. So I'm looking at that. I'm in the process of writing it up. There's a number of older teachers throughout the state age 50 or 55 or, or older. And so they're most likely to say that they don't want to come back if we do face-to-face because of the health concerns. And anybody with a preexisting health condition is at higher risk. And they're certainly not going to want to come back to the face-to-face. So one out of every four teachers, age 55 or older in a national survey said they won't return if it's face-to-face. One out of four of every teacher says they will not return if it's face-to-face. So typically we lose about 8% or 9% of teachers every year. They just quit the profession. What this would do is, is double or, or multiply by 2.5, the number of teachers who would leave. And that's really troubling because number one, it's going to hit lower income schools, probably a little harder than wealthier schools.

Ed Fuller:

But also because we're at a point in Pennsylvania where we simply do not produce enough teachers to... If we lose that many, we do not produce enough to replace those positions. There are simply not enough people willing to teach at this point in time to fill all those positions. So we'll have fewer teachers, but we need more teachers because we need to spread kids out, right? You can't cram more kids in a classroom. What you need to do is spread kids out over more classrooms. So really we need more teachers, not less teachers. But if we're going face-to-face and the older teachers, you know, don't want to come back or people with preexisting conditions. We're not going to have enough bodies, like instructional instructor bodies, to run the kind of classes that we need to keep people safe with the virus still in existence. So it's troubling. That, yeah, that's one of the huge drawbacks of going to face-to-face.

Emily Reddy:

Pennsylvania's Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said not every parent will want to, or be able to send their children back to school. And that remote learning may well be part of district's plans for the coming school year. So it could be some in-person and some online, you know, how does a school district deal with having to deliver the same classes in these multiple ways?

Ed Fuller:

That's an excellent question. I have asked that question myself. I don't know the answer to that. It's going to require a lot of extra work from our educators who are already struggling to do something completely new, that they don't really have training for. You know, at least they're going to have the summer to prepare. And I know a lot of educators who typically have some time off in the summer are not going to have any time off this summer because they are going to be planning on how to do that, how to offer virtual and face-to-face at the same time. That's really tricky. You know, I wish I had an answer. Maybe somebody does. But given the resources they have, I don't understand how they're going to do that. The other thing too is, you know, transportation costs. And people have talked about staggering when school starts and things like that.

Ed Fuller:

Then you have to run buses perhaps all day long, going back and forth, back and forth. And that's... How do districts pay for that without any extra money? Particularly when you think of rural districts where the bus ride can be an hour and a half one way. It gets really complicated. So I don't think everything has been thought through well. I think there's a lot of issues that are going to impede trying to do both at the same time or just face-to-face. Without a lot of additional funds, it will be incredibly difficult to do well and to do safely.

Emily Reddy:

If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. We're talking with Ed Fuller about the effects of the coronavirus shutdown on K-12 schools. Fuller is an associate professor in the College of Education at Penn state. And we've been talking about the fall but schools in counties in Governor Wolf's "green" or "yellow" phases can go back to in-person instruction on July 1st, could we perhaps see K-12 students back in classrooms sooner than the fall?

Ed Fuller:

It's quite possible and if I was on a school board or a superintendent I'd seriously consider that option because I'm again pretty positive we're going to go back to virtual learning in the fall at some point. We'll just see a spike in infections again. We'll have to go back to shutdown. Particularly this would be an opportunity where if, if there's money available, which is always, you know, the big question, but to bring in those students from lower income families who probably fell further behind than they normally would have during this shutdown. Bring them back in, in the summer. Provide free transportation, free instruction, everything And get them in and get them caught back up so that we don't see this huge gap in learning that we're pretty confident is occurring during virtual learning. So that would be kind of an effort to target your resources on kids who need them the most without trying to do full blown school in the summer, which would be difficult I think. A lot of, you know, families plan... And not that anybody's going on cruises yet, hopefully. But I think targeting students would be a really wise investment of money at this point in time and to get them face to face for as long as they could before regular school opens, I think would help tremendously.

Emily Reddy:

Once schools do open back up, how far behind can we expect that students will be?

Ed Fuller:

Yeah, there's been some rough estimates. We don't really know because this has never happened before so we don't really have any historical data. But their estimates are that kids could fall, you know, lose -- it's not that people lose learning, but they don't learn as much as they otherwise would have from a quarter of a year to a full year. Unfortunately it tends to have the most profound effect on the youngest kids because they learn so much in such a short amount of time. So pre-K, K, first, second, they're going to be hurt the worst in terms of the amount of learning that they did not get. And then it tapers off up through high school where it's not as big of a drop in their learning. So, you know, again, and I hadn't thought about it, opening it back up in the summer for the early kids, it'd probably be a wise investment as well. And again, it's a little easier to do online with the older students, because they are motivated and they can pay attention and they can self regulate. Little kids really need an adult there to help them learn. So perhaps opening up early for those younger grades because they've been most effected by the closure might be a good use of the expenditures as well. But it could be a whole grade level. The really worrisome thing is if we go a whole nother year of virtual learning, I mean, really we, at that point, you know, what do we do? Do we just keep everybody in the same grade and try to repeat a year and catch them back up. But then what do you do with the new kids coming in? And it required, I mean, it would just, it's going to require a whole lot of investment of money and people at some point. And so the federal, government's the only entity that has that amount of money. They're going to need to step up and to fix this problem.

Emily Reddy:

Are there indications that, that might happen, that the federal government would step in with a lot of money?

Ed Fuller:

I have seen no indication that they're willing to do that at this point. Not at the level where it would make a significant difference. I mean, it needs to be a substantial amount of moneyParticularly, you know, and, and so people question, well, where would you spend that money? A lot of it is, you know, summer tutoring, summer small group instruction. Not only is it safer health wise, but it's also much more effective in terms of accelerating students' learning. But that costs money. You have to pay people to go do that. You have to provide transportation and everything. We can do it. We absolutely could do it. It's just, is there a political will to invest the type of money that we would need to, to help these kids, you know, overcome the school closures?

Emily Reddy:

And what we are seeing financially is that school district budgets are shrinking because of coronavirus. It could be because of state funding cuts or anticipated cuts or tax collection being down State College Area School District just projected a $9.6 million shortfall for the next fiscal year. It's already enacted a salary freeze and a hiring freeze. And I'm sure those things are happening other places too. And we're actually seeing teachers cut. Nationwide in April alone, school districts laid off or furloughed nearly half a million public school personnel. So we're talking about needing to do more, but there are actually cuts happening.

Ed Fuller:

Yes, absolutely. The one good thing and I will point out, that our legislature held education, state education funding, constant. Which was a surprise to me and I'm glad they did that. That will help tremendously. But again, as you mentioned schools are funded through both state and local revenue. So local revenue is going to go down because it's based on property taxes and sales tax and both of those are going to be down. And income tax. So all that's going to be down. So, so districts like State College who rely on local revenue more than other districts will see a greater cut. The one, you know, if you want to see a bright spot in this, is that the amount of revenue between ealthy districts in poor districts,that gap will shrink. Because poor districts like Redding get most of their money from the state, and they're going to get all the money that they normally get. Wealthy districts like State College will get their money from the state, but the majority of money they get is from local revenues and local revenues will be down. So wealthy districts will get hurt. Poor districts won't get hurt as much. So it'll close the gap and, and... Not that that's the way we want to close the gap, but it will close the gap. Much better would just be to funnel a lot more money to poor districts than we currently do.

Emily Reddy:

And another thing schools might find themselves lacking when students come back is enough nurses and counselors.

Ed Fuller:

Yes. A number of schools already do not employ a counselor or a nurse, and a number of other schools don't have enough counselors to meet the recommended 250 students toone counselor ratio. In fact, very, very few schools in Pennsylvania meet that 250 to one ratio. This is really important because a lot of kids coming back if we do face-to-face. And even if we don't do face-to-face are gonna suffer mental issues through COVID. And then we're layering on protest on top of COVID. Kids will be sick. You couldn't go to the doctor for other things while we had the shutdown. So low income families in low income areas are really going to need mental health assistance and health assistance more than ever. And those are precisely the families and schools that don't have those personnel already.

Ed Fuller:

So it's, it's really disconcerting to me that they're not going to have access to those folks. One of the things I know our, our dean, Kim Lawless, has talked about is trying to do have some people in the College of Education, provide virtual counseling. Which everybody is doing now, because there wasn't any other options. So they're getting a little better at it. And to provide the kids who really need some mental health assistance to get that. Nursing's a little harder to do online, but it's possible. But we, that that's another area where that we need some investment. Because those kids are going to be particularly kids who have lost somebody in their family due to COVID or their families have lost a lot of income due to COVID. I mean, that's a lot of mental health stress on, on young kids and they're going to need some help. So we need to figure out a way to get them that help.

Emily Reddy:

And I guess looking forward out, you know, 10 years or something, I wonder do you see any lasting effect that will happen to kids? You know, some gap or deficit that will ripple forward and go out into society?

Ed Fuller:

Possibly. If we do not invest in accelerating the learning of students who were enrolled during this time, then yeah, they'll be some issues in terms of that they just didn't learn as much as they otherwise would have. If we invest in things like tutoring, small group instruction. Particularly, you know, offering free summer school, those types of things. It's possible to accelerate them back to where they would have been. So the question is, do we, as a society, want to invest our money and do that? Or do, are we just OK with the kids, you know, just having a deficit in their learning, due to the school closures. It's all, you know, where do we want to put our money? So it's hard to tell. You know, it very well could affect a lot of kids, particularly again, the younger kids who are, you know, PK 2, PK 3, if we don't invest in accelerating them after we can hopefully have a vaccine and go face-to-face for long periods of time. If we don't invest in them, you know, they'll always be a deficit relative to other students whodidn't have school closure. But I'm confident we can close it. It's just a matter of whether we have the political will to do that. Do we want to do that as a society?

Emily Reddy:

Ed Fuller, thanks for talking with us.

Ed Fuller:

You're welcome. Thank you for having me.

Emily Reddy:

We talked with Ed Fuller about the effects of the coronavirus shutdown on K-12 students. Fuller is an associate professor in the College of Education at Penn State. Thanks for listening to Take Note on WPSU, I'm Emily Reddy.