John Rogers: National Survey of High School Principals Finds Strong Response to COVID-19, Pervasive Inequity

New findings note that despite efforts to meet basic needs, disadvantaged students are impeded by transition to online learning.

A survey of high school principals nationwide led by UCLA Professor of Education John Rogers has revealed new findings on schools’ and communities’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the inequality that the pandemic has all too starkly exposed. 

“The results of this survey make two things very clear, says John Rogers, education professor and director of the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at UCLA who led the survey. “Public schools have responded heroically, playing a critical role in supporting students and sustaining communities threatened by the deadly virus and economic shutdown. But the inequities that plague our schools have been exacerbated by the pandemic, impeding learning for those students in communities already greatly challenged by economic and social inequalities.”

The survey, “Learning Lessons:  U.S. Public High Schools and the COVID-19 Pandemic in Spring 2020,” reports the responses of a nationally representative sample of 344 high school principals interviewed in May and June 2020 after schools closed and transitioned to distance learning.

States in the Northeast and part of the South last spring bore the full brunt of the pandemic. In those regions, one principal describes the “intensity of the problems we’ve faced … death, loss of jobs, anxiety, depression.”  Another noted that her students had “suffered losses … neighbors dying … people afflicted.” Even in other states where rates of infection were dramatically lower, the effects of the economic dislocation created by the national lockdown were experienced widely.  One principal of a socio-economically diverse school in urban Washington, remembered “seeing families thrust into poverty so quickly and waiting in food lines.”

In the survey, 59 percent of principals who responded said they had helped students and families access and navigate health services.  Seventy-seven percent provided access to mental health counseling.  Nearly half provided support to students experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness.  Almost a third of principals provided financial support to students and their families. Sadly, 43 percent of principals reported providing support for students who experienced death in their families.

“These findings underscore the critical role schools play in their communities, Rogers said. “More than two-thirds of principals reported their school or district provided meals to family members of students who were not enrolled in the school. And while principals of almost all schools provided meals to students, nearly half of principals of high poverty schools provided meals to more students.

The survey also addressed the digital divide in the pandemic, which has never been so dramatic as when public schooling was required to move online. Rogers’ survey revealed that in the early days of the transition this past spring, more affluent schools were more than three times as likely to supply staff with the necessary technology. Schools with lower levels of poverty were also more prepared to adapt to remote instruction, based on previous experience with technology.

Principals also reported great variability in student access to the technology hardware and connectivity needed to participate from home.  High-poverty schools were more than eight times as likely to experience a severe shortage of technology at the time of transition—at least half of their students lacked the necessary technology.  Schools with high levels of poverty provided technology to the most students, and principals in these schools spent more time distributing and troubleshooting technology than principals in other schools.

Other shortfalls in schools during the pandemic’s closure and reduction in services to students include difficulty supplying necessary materials for English learners and special education students and students with disabilities. Overall, more than a quarter of students were unable to keep up with assignments during remote instruction, a challenge that was more likely to occur in high-poverty schools. In addition, large numbers of students – nearly half of the principals reported at least 10 percent – were missing from school altogether and in some instances, the principals were unable to contact them at all.

“These findings reveal exceptional efforts by school principals across the country, but also make clear that the inequities confronting schools amid the pandemic map directly onto the pre-existing social inequalities that unfairly affect our most vulnerable students,” Rogers said. “As we have moved to remote instruction, economically disadvantaged communities have been disproportionately impacted.”

“To their great credit, Schools have played a strong role in the nation’s response to the pandemic,’ Rogers said.  “But many principals said they do not want to return to schools as they were. They see the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to reset and reflect on values and beliefs, to shift the way students are taught or even dismantle broken systems in a broader reinvention of teaching and learning.

“Learning Lessons: U.S. Public High Schools and the COVID-19 Pandemic in Spring 2020,” is a project of the Institute for Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. 

To read the full article, visit the Sudikoff Public Forum website.

The full report of the survey findings is available at this link