Expert Commentary

6 tips for reporting on how COVID-19 school closures affect student learning

Education researcher F. Chris Curran offers six tips to help journalists report on how COVID-19 school closures affect student learning.

remote learning students online covid-19 coronavirus
(U.S. Army/Garrick W. Morgenweck)

In the weeks since public schools across the country closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, parents have repeatedly asked educators: How will this affect my child’s academic career?

The short answer is that no one knows for sure. The long answer: Because school districts have never suddenly closed campuses en masse on this scale before, researchers have not studied such a disruption. Education experts can make predictions, however, based on what they know about how students responded to shorter or more localized shutdowns in the past.

We asked for insights from F. Chris Curran, who co-directs the Education Policy Research Center at the University of Florida and conducts research on improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged youth. Curran also serves on the editorial board of the Educational Researcher academic journal.

He offered these six tips to help journalists report on and contextualize current school closures.

  1. Consult research on how student achievement has been affected by a range of scenarios that involve children missing school.

Spoiler alert: Missing school, whether voluntarily or involuntary, generally has negative consequences for student learning.

Curran recommends journalists read academic articles that examine school closures caused by infectious disease outbreaks, natural disasters or severe weather. Journalists also should review research focusing on student absenteeism — missing class because of sickness or injury, for example. There’s ample research on the short- and long-term effects of student exclusion, or not being allowed to attend class after being suspended or placed in a juvenile detention facility.

Another area of inquiry worth looking into: How scheduled school closures each summer can slow — and even reverse — student progress. Decades of research document what educators refer to as “summer learning loss” or “summer slide.”

Based on the literature, Curran predicts school closures due to the pandemic will be harmful to student achievement, especially for kids from low-income households and racial and ethnic minorities. “We’re probably going to see, on average, a negative effect on achievement,” he says.

  1. Explain that the impact of school closures will vary according to children’s socioeconomic backgrounds and geographic location.

Lower-income children and those living in rural areas aren’t as likely to have internet, or at least not the fast broadband internet needed to stream instructional videos and participate in remote learning activities such as online meetups with teachers and classmates.

“We’re seeing anecdotal cases of children who don’t have access to technology or broadband having to find ways to access online [resources],” Curran says. “That might mean sitting in the parking lot of McDonalds to access WiFi. This is one of the ways, potentially, these disparities are going to play out.”

Children from higher-income households are more likely to have private tutors and a stay-at-home parent who can dedicate more time to overseeing student learning during school shutdowns.

“If you’re home with two college-educated parents and one stays home already and that one plays the role of educator and your parents pay for [learning] apps and private tutors, what’s going on at that home looks different than in other households in which parents don’t have the same education or time or access to buying resources,” Curran explains.

  1. Investigate differences in the remote instruction school districts provide.

Across the U.S., public schools have slowly moved instruction from the classroom to children’s homes. There’s wide variation in the structure and content of these new remote education programs. All, however, rely heavily on help from parents and guardians.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell has a database that tracks how school districts are providing instruction. On a weekly basis, its researchers examine school districts’ and states’ responses to the coronavirus crisis.

According to a report the center released April 27, less than half of the 82 school districts it reviewed — 44% — provided a “comprehensive remote learning plan,” or one that includes formalized curriculum and instruction and giving students feedback on their work.

Meanwhile, more than half of districts did not assign grades or track attendance. “Just 16 of 82 districts reviewed (20 percent) report using a system to track attendance, up from just 14 districts (17 percent) since last week,” the report notes.

  1. Explore other factors that likely will influence academic achievement while schools are closed.

A lack of access to classrooms and formalized instruction isn’t the only factor affecting student learning right now, Curran points out. Families face numerous stressors, including anxiety about COVID-19, lost jobs and income, and ongoing shortages of certain foods and supplies. Safety is a concern for children forced to spend all day, every day, in abusive households.

Children’s health plays a role as well. Kids might not be able to get as much exercise now that parks, playgrounds and athletic fields are closed in much of the country and children can’t go out and play with friends and neighbors.

  1. Show how teachers and school employees are dealing with the crisis.

When reporting on school closings and student learning, don’t forget to ask how teachers and other school employees are faring, recommends Curran, who taught middle school science before becoming a researcher. Classroom teachers are trying to quickly convert an in-person classroom curriculum into an interactive, online learning experience — and help parents and guardians manage homeschooling. At the same time, they also are wrestling with personal challenges, such as working at home full-time while caring for their children or aging parents.

Curran suggests journalists ask educators what worries them most about schools re-opening. “As we think about returning to school, some of our more senior teachers have concerns about their own health as they’re more vulnerable,” he says. “For a number of them, there probably are concerns about job security.”

The U.S. economy’s rapid decline has caused financial uncertainty across government agencies and private industry. If states and local governments collect less money through taxes and other sources of revenue, it’s almost certain public schools will need to cut their budgets. If that happens, educators who play a support role — literacy specialists and math coaches, for instance — will likely worry about district officials viewing them as more expendable than classroom teachers, Curran adds. 

  1. Look for silver linings.

Curran urges journalists to spotlight the positive things happening in communities amid the outbreak, including discussions about ways to improve public education, increase its funding and make both more equitable. A lot of the [current] dialogue is about challenges and barriers and negative consequences,” he explains. “What I’m hearing and seeing less is people talking about the next steps, to say, ‘What opportunities are there to leverage this disruption and think about ways to improve?’”

He continues, “I think the opportunity here is to say, given this disruption, ‘What can we do differently? Is there a chance to reimagine schools to address the structural and systematic inequities that exist in our schools?’ I think there is a possibility for that if policymakers and practitioners recognize that and jump on it.” Curran elaborates on this in an editorial he wrote recently for The Gainesville Sun.

Another story idea: Report on families and educators who are overcoming challenges they encounter and showing resilience.

“Make sure you’re looking for success stories as much as you’re looking for documentation of the challenges and barriers,” he says. “These are stories that are worth telling and worth learning from.”


If you’re looking for more education reporting resources, check out our tip sheet on covering colleges’ financial troubles in the wake of COVID-19. We’ve also gathered research on student behavior during prior campus closings and how moving from in-person instruction to online learning tends to affect children’s academic progress.

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