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As the coronavirus pandemic spread through the country, a common (socially distanced) conversation among friends and families compared how many hours of remote learning kids were getting. Preliminary results from a new survey of school districts confirm what many parents learned through the Zoom grapevine. The number of hours your kids got varied wildly depending on where you happen to live. But the amount of time was not the only difference, according to a recent survey: the type of instruction students received also diverged dramatically.

Twenty-five percent of districts said children in kindergarten through second grade were supposed to receive more than three hours of remote instruction every day but another 25 percent of districts reported only one hour or less. The two-hour-a-day difference narrowed a bit in higher grades but even by high school, many students received 1.5 fewer instructional hours every day than others (3 hours vs. 4.5 hours). Over several months of school closures, the daily difference in hours added up to a lot of instructional time. My back-of-the-envelope calculation puts it at more than 100 hours. (My math: 2 hours a day x 5 days a week x 12 weeks of school closures = 120 hours.)

 “One key question is why these differences occur and what do these differences mean for students,” said Mike Garet, head of the survey team at the American Institutes of Research (AIR), a nonprofit research organization. AIR presented early results from its “National Survey of Public Education’s Response to COVID-19” at a virtual session of the Education Writers Association’s national seminar on July 22, 2020. AIR sent out surveys to more than 2,500 of the nation’s 13,500 school districts in May and plans to release results periodically to inform education policymakers during the pandemic. This early report represents a 19 percent response rate so far and includes data from nearly 500 districts across 49 states and covers a wide range of both urban and rural regions.

I was surprised to learn that the difference in instructional hours can’t be simply explained by poverty. When researchers diced the survey data up by income, they discovered less than a half hour difference in school time between low- and high-income districts. Understanding why schools made such different decisions on the amount of daily instruction during the pandemic is a mystery — for now.

Instead of hours per day, the survey revealed that it was how students were being taught that clearly varied by income. Low-income schools spent considerably more time reviewing old content. Wealthier schools were more likely to teach new material.  Almost a third of high-poverty districts reported that their teachers primarily reviewed content taught earlier in the year to students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Among low-poverty districts, only 8 percent emphasized review. Even for older kids in grades six through 12, nearly a quarter of high-poverty districts emphasized review. Among low-poverty districts, only 6 percent primarily reviewed previous material for older students. 

Learning materials — paper versus screens — were another chasm. Nearly half of low-income districts distributed paper packets of worksheets to families while more than three-fourths of wealthier school districts distributed everything digitally. 

This digital divide had enormous consequences for what instruction meant. Low-poverty districts offered far more live virtual classes, live one-on-one sessions with teachers and prerecorded classes for students to watch at their convenience. High-poverty districts were far less likely to offer any of these three things. For example, 53 percent of low-poverty districts offered live virtual support between a teacher and his or her student. Only 32 percent of high-poverty districts offered this. 

It’s worth noting that the AIR survey revealed that almost all school districts — rich and poor alike —  dedicated much less time to instruction than they do in ordinary times. The average of 3.87 hours of instructional time per day for high schoolers across the nation was far less than the 6 hours a day that many states require. 

Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat, superintendent of the Peoria, Ill., schools, speaking at the conference session, said her district’s data “aligned very closely” with the AIR survey results. She runs an urban district of more than 13,000 students, more than half Black and 70 percent low-income. “Our [instructional] hours were low,” Desmoulin-Kherat said. “We spent a lot of time, as your data illustrated, reviewing content.”

Desmoulin-Kherat described how her district was consumed with feeding children during the shelter-in-place order as many families relied on the school system for daily meals. She partnered with the Salvation Army and delivered 440,000 meals. Her district was also operating health clinics inside school buildings, so that children could continue to get their immunizations, and finding ways to address the mental health needs of staff and students. Even getting students to “check in” online for the limited hours of remote school was a challenge. Desmoulin-Kherat said school staff visited homes during the pandemic to help more families log in online. That eventually raised attendance rates to 70 percent at Peoria’s low-income schools, she said. By contrast, she said, 95 percent of the students in gifted and talented programs checked in every day. 

Peoria deviated from the national trend when it came to technology. Despite her district’s high poverty, Peoria was in the middle of an effort to provide every student with a laptop and already had 10,000 laptops on hand when the pandemic hit. That allowed Desmoulin-Kherat to distribute 6,000 laptops to families at home. Still, she described how virtual teaching lagged as the district first had to train many teachers on how to use software for remote instruction. 

This first glimpse of public schools’ experiences with remote learning  provides concrete evidence for why education experts are expecting a growing gap in academic achievement between rich and poor students. A recent McKinsey & Company report predicted that the pandemic’s harm to student learning “could last a lifetime.” More detailed results from the survey are expected in the fall. 

This story about coronavirus school closures was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our Proof Points newsletter.

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Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for the 2013-14 school year. In school,...

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  1. Nearly all districts discovered pretty early on that replicating the “business of school,” with specific instructional periods did not make sense in an online environment. We learned quickly that short powerful videos that turned students back to doing their own individual learning was more effective. That this practice crossed high income and low income districts is surprising but welcomed good news. Learning aligned with regular school’s 6 1/2 hour day does not make sense in this environment. But learning over a child’s 16 hours of wakefulness each day gives us a lot of time in which to operate.

    What is predictable and more concerning is that students in low income districts were not given the engaging, exploratory materials to review that high income students received. It means we don’t trust their ability to learn and it means — just as Zaretta Hammond speaks about — that we have reduced the learning load for these students and they will come back to school not as well prepared as their higher income peers. There is no reason for that. Teachers need to design to standards, but bring all they know about building a relevant, engaging, culturally responsive curriculum, and then providing activities that the entire family can participate in. Families can provide the peer learning environment while the kitchen table provides the desk. We do not need to lose this whole year of learning for our students. But teachers need to dramatically rethink how they send it out. Many states are clarifying what part of the standards they will implement, and if we had excellent instructional curriculum design, we might indeed engage students in learning beyond the 6 1/2 hour school day, if the learning is compelling.

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