How Has COVID-19 Impacted K-12 Education? Four Experts Weigh In

How has COVID-19 most changed the work educators do?

That's the question that Matthew Mugo Fields, EVP and General Manager for Supplemental Intervention Solutions at HMH, posed to a panel of five education leaders at the annual ASU GSV Summit. The conference, hosted by Arizona State University and Global Silicon Valley Ventures, was held virtually this year and convened more than 32,000 leaders in the fields of education and technology from 135 countries to address this year's theme: "The Dawn of the Age of Digital Learning."

The October 1 panel included the following education experts:

  • Thomas Mahoney, superintendent, Oregon Community Unit School District
  • Sonja Santelises, CEO, Baltimore City Public Schools
  • Heidi Perry, co-founder and COO, Writable
  • Bart Epstein, CEO, EdTech Evidence Exchange

In their responses to Fields's question on how COVID-19 has impacted their work, the panelists addressed five key themes.

1. Integration of EdTech Into Learning

During the panel, Epstein said, "I'd say the most consequential change has been the realization that tech has gone from a nice-to-have to a must-have in ways that we never anticipated or wanted." This is happening, he said, during a time when the amount of support teachers need is skyrocketing and the resources available to them has plummeted.

Santelises said technology has traditionally been used in her district to collect information about students and consequently to drive instruction. That need for data has become even more essential with remote learning.

"For us it's been, how do we leverage technology in ways we hadn't thought of before, ... and actually make teachers' loads easier, make school leaders' loads easier," she said. "But trying to do that in the current situation means a greater reliance on tech."

For Writable, this has meant adapting the software to meet teachers' needs in real time, Perry said. Software changes have increased so that the technology can "fit in with how [educators] live, work, and breathe" during the pandemic.

"I'd say we're extremely focused on meeting districts where they are... Everyone's at a different spot; that's become insanely clear," she said. "There's not even three shades of gray of customers."

2. Differentiation and Personalization in Instruction

Epstein also noted during the panel, "[COVID] presents an unprecedented need for differentiation and personalization in ways that are just not feasible for a single human to do without technology."

Santelises said the greater use of technology allows teachers to manage information from "multiple vantage points" and then utilize data to address students' specific needs. This results in greater educational equity because data provides insight into students' learning and can help shed light on who is struggling.

"You want [teachers] to turn that around and actually create an individualized or tailored experience for kids," she said.

"Tech has gone from a nice-to-have to a must-have in ways that we never anticipated or wanted."

Bart Epstein CEO, EdTech Evidence Exchange

3. Equity Issues

Speaking of equity, Mahoney said the transition to remote learning has exposed his district's need to better understand and address the needs of the most needy students and families.

"This whole idea of supporting students—for us, the group would be our low-income students; really being able to prepare and support those low-income students and families was just a deficit of ours," he said.

4. Student Access to Technology

Experts explained that COVID-19 has revealed a greater need for student access to digital devices, such as laptops or tablets, so that they can complete their work at home. Prior to March 15, Santelises said, her district had one device for every four students, and these devices were typically used within school buildings.

"Literally overnight, we went from about 10-15% of our teachers regularly using technology with that 1:4 device ratio to probably post-March 16 needing to stand up 10,000 Google classrooms in less than a week," she said, "and needing to move that ratio from 1:4 much closer to 1:1 and then hitting smack into broadband challenges that have been well-documented."

As a result of COVID-19, teachers have had to factor students' home environments into how they teach, and as a result, students are no longer on an equal playing field, Epstein said. For instance, some students may not want to turn on their video cameras due to their home environments. In addition, "Simply giving a broadband device to a student doesn't all of a sudden make it possible for them to use technology they haven't been trained on," he said.

In his work at the EdTech Evidence Exchange, Epstein and his colleagues are studying the contextual factors that make EdTech perform differently in different places—research he now wishes they had started conducting several years ago.

5. SEL and Mental Health

During COVID-19, social-emotional learning has become a priority in K-12 schools, as educators must cover not only the learning lost amid the transition to remote learning this past spring, but also the well-being of students in challenging times. The increased emphasis on SEL is a response to students' anxiety about the virus and the feeling of isolation they have experienced during the stay-at-home period.

And it's not just limited to students, Mahoney said. Self-care is just as important for educators and school staff.

"We thought we were doing really well in terms of how we do that, and this really exposed that we don't do that very well, and we don't have a system that really can help us scale up," he said. "It's not a matter of doing more of what we do. It's a matter of reinventing everything we do."

COVID-19 has presented educators with unexpected and unprecedented challenges, and it has changed many aspects of K-12 education. While the pandemic may have made some elements of teaching more difficult, it has also shed light on the changes that need to be made to better accommodate students and educators during this time—and in the future.

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You can learn more about SEL strategies for teachers and education leaders during COVID-19 in this blog post on Shaped.

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