A new national UCLA survey of high school principals — including 76 from Southern California — shows that while schools responded well to students confronted by the COVID-19 pandemic, inequities in institutions and communities continue to pose significant challenges.

“The results of this survey make two things very clear: Public schools have responded heroically, playing a critical role in supporting students and sustaining communities threatened by the deadly virus and economic shutdown,” said John Rogers, education professor and director of the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at UCLA who led the survey.

“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 questioned in May and June after schools closed campuses and transitioned to distance learning amid the pandemic.

In the survey, 59% 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 50% provided support to students experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness. Almost one-third of principals provided financial support to students and their families. Sadly, 43% of principals reported providing support for students who experienced death in their families.

“We see similar dynamics in Los Angeles County with many educators making extraordinary efforts to meet new students needs,” Rogers said. “But as the pandemic widens our already substantial economic and racial gaps, educational inequality is expanding as well.”

Rogers said the findings underscore the critical role schools play in their communities.

“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,” Rogers said.

“And while principals of almost all schools provided meals to students, nearly half of principals of high poverty schools provided meals to more students.”

As the pandemic accelerated last spring, the transition to remote learning for schools was immediate. But the transition to remote instruction was not the same for all schools and students. Inequality in learning opportunities was exacerbated in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The digital divide was a prime cause.

While many educators and key staff struggled to move online in the early days of the transition, low poverty schools were more than three times as likely (25% to 8%) as high poverty schools to have all staff supplied with necessary technology when they transitioned to remote instruction.

There were also differences in the readiness for remote instruction of teachers and schools.

In those schools that entered the pandemic with a strong technological infrastructure, educators and students were able to draw upon previous experience to support remote instruction. Schools with low levels of poverty were most likely to “swiftly” take up remote instruction, high poverty schools and rural schools often struggled during the transition.

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 (34% to 4%) 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.

The survey makes clear that the impact of remote instruction has significant implications for educational equity. Many high schools had difficulty providing necessary supplementary services for English Learners and Special Education students.

More than 40% of all principals reported that their school did not supply English Learners with instructional materials — either online or in print packets — in their home language. A majority of principals reported that their school did not provide the same quality of services for students with disabilities (such as occupational therapy or counseling) as prior to the pandemic.

Two-thirds of principals also reported that fewer students than prior to the pandemic were able to keep up with their assigned work. In 43% of schools, more than a quarter of students were not able to keep up with assignments during remote instruction. This problem was far more likely to occur in high poverty schools than in low poverty schools, according to the survey.

“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.”

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