The blog of the Urban Institute
July 30, 2020

Teaching Through the COVID-19 Crisis

As the start of the 2020–21 school year rapidly approaches, states and districts face difficult decisions about whether and how to reopen schools. Students’ learning and safety have rightfully been at the center of those conversations, but decisionmakers at the district, state, and federal levels must also understand the challenges teachers experience during the pandemic. Prioritizing teacher well-being and stability can help ensure students will learn—whether virtually or in person—when school begins this fall.

Teachers’ challenges will vary by region, district policy, years of teaching experience, demographics of students, and, especially, their age. Though much of the discussion about teacher challenges has focused on health concerns of teachers older than 50, midcareer teachers and younger teachers may face their own challenges as they continue to educate from a distance or plan for returning to school this fall.

Parenting young children        

In districts that move forward with in-person instruction and those that decide to continue remote education, there will be challenges for teachers who are parents themselves.

Almost 40 percent of teachers in the United States have a child younger than 12, according to American Community Survey (ACS) five-year estimates. Teachers between 36 and 50 years old are more likely to have a young child than not, which will create significant challenges for these teachers, especially if children do not go back to school at the same time as their parent. And if schools must revert to remote learning again, these teachers will have less time to dedicate to their classes because of their responsibilities as parents. This spring, teachers who were unable to work because of family demands or debilitating illness caused by the novel coronavirus received 2 weeks of paid sick leave and up to 10 weeks of paid expanded family and medical leave through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Accessing technology

The shift to remote learning shed light on how many students lacked access to a computer or the internet, but many teachers also lack a reliable high-speed internet in their homes. According to the five-year ACS estimates, 10 percent of teachers do not have access to high-speed internet. The states with the greatest internet needs among teachers are Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, where 18 to 20 percent lack high-speed internet. This has forced teachers to work in unproductive environments, including parking lots or empty school buildings, or to use cellular data in an attempt to teach their students.

What districts can do

Caring for young children and lacking access to an essential component of remote teaching creates a challenging working and living environment for an already stressed group of Americans. Forty-six percent of K–12 teachers reported high daily stress before the pandemic upended their teaching practice. We also know that stress in teachers can lead to increased student stress and worse academic outcomes. The well-being of teachers is essential for the well-being and academic outcomes of students.

As districts make decisions about how to move forward this fall, consideration must be given to how these plans can support teachers and their well-being through the pandemic.

  • Districts must include teachers in the planning process. By lending their knowledge of student behavior and requisite conditions for optimal learning, these professionals can provide essential support to the development and refinement of district reopening plans.
  • It is very likely that even among schools that reopen this fall, outbreaks will force schools to reinstate remote education until it is again safe to return to the classroom. Districts must plan for intermittent closures by ensuring all teachers have high-speed internet access.
  • Given the likely changes to instruction in the 2020–21 school year, districts and schools should develop clear guidance around how teachers will be evaluated and how subsequent supports will be provided, even if instruction continues remotely. This clarity will reduce the stress teachers may feel regarding how instructional changes will impact their careers.

Students are undoubtedly facing severe uncertainty and anxiety and many are struggling to learn outside a traditional classroom. The priority of states, districts, and schools should always be the success and health of its students. During this crisis, providing stability and learning opportunities for students will include considering the conditions teachers are facing and providing appropriate supports as they navigate, and help their students navigate, this pandemic.

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