KEY ISSUES

COVID-19 Pandemic

 

Education Commission of the States is continuing to track state education policies related to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can use our policy tracking tool to see summaries of enacted and vetoed bills and our policy watch list for bills that are pending. Our policy team members have also published  several posts on our Ed Note Blog that capture states’ responses to various educational impacts of the pandemic, from early learning through workforce development.

This page provides high-level overviews of key issues education leaders are facing as they continue to provide education services during these uncertain times. Each overview contains a brief explanation of the topic and the implications for students, and includes additional links that readers may find helpful. This resource is forward-looking, providing considerations and policy examples for the 2020-21 school year. You can also reference the previous version of our COVID-19 update page, which captures state guidance in the early months of the pandemic, here.

State Legislative Development on Key Issues

Assessments and Accountability

The U.S. Department of Education issued guidance indicating states will be required to administer federally required standardized assessments in 2021...

Assessments and Accountability

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While all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Education received federal testing waivers for the 2019-20 school year, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance indicating states will be required to administer federally required standardized assessments in 2021. The department outlined state flexibilities, including permitted adjustments to assessment instruments and waivers from accountability provisions.   

Policymakers are trying to understand which schools to identify and prioritize for improvement and support in the absence of continuous state assessment information. Policy responses to account for a lost year of datavary. For example, Massachusetts issued a memo detailing that the state would move forward with their assessments this spring, but with various flexibilities, including exempting scores from school accountability and timing of administration for state assessments. In Wisconsin,A.B. 1038 (enacted) prohibits the department of public instruction from publishing school and school district accountability reports in the 2020-21 school year. A review of federal waivers shows that, at minimum, a state must ensure that any school identified in the 2019-20 school year for targeted support and improvement continues to receive support and maintains improvement plans in the 2020-21 school year. 

States have also sought to support districts in assessing student learning, including potential unfinished learning and the impact of the shift to remote learning. In Michigan, for example, H.B. 5913(enacted) directs districts to administer benchmark assessments to measure student progress and unfinished learning. These assessments will not be included in accountability determinations and are meant to assist districts in meeting student needs.  

Education leaders are also considering how to meaningfully collect 2020-21 accountability measures such as student growth and attendance data. Measures of school quality that inform states’ accountability systems may prove to be particularly challenging data to collect. It is still unknown how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact schools’ ability to administer assessments and other indicators, such as absenteeism and access to a well-rounded education, may be difficult to measure in nontraditional learning environments.  

Finance

The coronavirus pandemic slowed the economy, which led to a recession across the United States. As a result, state budget shortfalls are estimated to be about 25% in fiscal year 2021...

Finance

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The coronavirus pandemic slowed the economy, which led to a recession across the United States. As a result, state budget shortfalls are estimated to be about 25% in fiscal year 2021, with some states experiencing larger shortfalls than others. While some local governments may be able to supplement decreased state revenue with local property tax to fund schools, this would likely increase the school funding gap between wealthy and poor communities. Budget challenges could be exacerbated as enrollment and average daily membership calculations are impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Indiana provides one example of how a state is responding to this concern. There, the department of education created a new instruction status, “Virtual due to COVID,” that allows school districts to receive 100% of foundation funding for students receiving 50% or more of their schooling through Virtual/Hybrid Learning. According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, overall postsecondary enrollment declined by 2.5% in fall 2020, with a 13.1% decrease in freshman enrollment and a 21% decrease in enrollment at public two-year institutions — resulting in a loss of $183 billion for postsecondary institutions. Additional declines in international enrollment are estimated to have cost the economy $1.8 billion last year. In the midst of declining enrollment and uncertain state budgets, postsecondary leaders have considered staffing freezes, reductions to campus services, and adjustments to tuition, among other changes.  

In March 2020, the federal government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to help stimulate the economy and support state and local governments. The education provisions in the CARES Act cover early learning through workforce development. The CARES Act provided about $286 dollars per student on average, or 1.9% of P-12 education revenue. The Education Stabilization Fund portion of the CARES Act included the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. GEER Fund Trackers and ESSER Fund Trackers show that states are using funds to cover a variety of costs.  

The federal government passed a new $1.9 trillion stimulus package in March 2021, which provides aid to state and local governments, in addition to $170 billion for K-12 and postsecondary education.  

Student Health and Wellness

As districts and schools continue to transition to in-person learning throughout the 2020-21 school year, one key area of focus for leaders has been keeping students and teachers safe in the classroom. 

Student Health and Wellness

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As districts and schools continue to transition to in-person learning throughout the 2020-21 school year, one key area of focus for leaders has been keeping students and teachers safe in the classroom. State policymakers have considered investments into a variety of health resources, including one-time purchases (e.g., upgrades to HVAC systems, plexiglass sneezeguards or partitions and portable HEPA fans/filters for high-risk areas); ongoing purchases (e.g., disinfectant, disposable masks and gloves, hand sanitizer and COVID-19 testing kits); and elective or as-needed purchases (e.g., deep cleaning, outdoor tents or space heaters). 

Beyond preparing schools and institutions to reopen for in-person educational services, schools and postsecondary institutions provide wraparound health and wellness services upon which many students and families depend. These includeschool meals,social and emotional learning supportand access to mental and behavioral health services and tomedical professionals 

However, not all student needs will be met with physical well-being improvements. In addition to ensuring students’ health and well-being in the classroom, education leaders are considering how to best support students’ mental health during the pandemic. Social and emotional learning and access to mental health professionals are important considerations for student learning in the 2020-21 school year. For instance, the Ohio Department of Education’s telehealth guidelines include an FAQ for service providers of mental and behavioral health services to students. In North CarolinaS.B. 36 (enacted) extends the deadline for the use of funding for school health-support personnel to provide additional physical and mental health support services for students — remote and in-person — in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Many states’ and postsecondary campus reopening plans address symptom monitoring, physical distancing protocols and cleaning procedures. As is the case at the K-12 level, state leaders are considering the impact of the pandemic on student mental health at the postsecondary level. Research on the impact of the pandemic on student mental health is currently conflicting An August 2020 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the pandemic has led to increased substance abuse and elevated suicidal ideation among postsecondary students, while a September 2020 study by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health found that mental health distress among college students remained about the same as pre-pandemic levels, with slight increases in academic and family distress.  

Student Transitions and Interrupted Schooling

Throughout the pandemic education systems and leaders have worked hard to ensure that students are prepared to advance to the next grade level or graduate college-and-career-ready.

Student Transitions and Interrupted Schooling

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Throughout the pandemic education systems and leaders have worked hard to ensure that students are prepared to advance to the next grade level or graduate college-and-career-ready. When evaluating students for admission, colleges and universities are weighing what can be fairly expected from students while maintaining the institution’s academic standards. In Colorado, H.B. 20-1407 (enacted) temporarily allows postsecondary governing boards to determine whether to require a national standardized test score as part of the admissions process for 2021 high school graduates. Other states have extended high school graduation requirement flexibilities to the 2020-21 school year. In the District of ColumbiaB. 23-1027 (enacted) extends a waiver of the volunteer community service graduation requirement through the 2020-21 school year. Pennsylvania delayed the administration of the Keystone Exams as a graduation requirement until the 2022-23 school year (S.B. 1216, enacted). 

Initial reporting from school districts and field experts shows that student learning has suffered during the pandemic, with students of color disproportionately impacted by the loss of learning opportunities and support. Some states have data to show that low-income and English learners have been most impacted by the gaps in learning support caused by the pandemic. Other research shows unfinished learning to be differentiated by subject — with math gains lower than reading gains on average — although data is missing for significant numbers of low-income, Black and Hispanic students. To address pandemic-related unfinished learning, state policymakers are considering solutions such as expanding summer instructional programming, implementing additional curriculum and programming for foundational skills, changing the school calendar or instructional time, or measuring and reporting on unfinished learning. For additional information on measuring learning loss, see the Assessment section of this resource. 

Teachers

As local, state and federal governments consider returning to school in person, the coronavirus poses a safety concern for teachers, especially those who are in higher risk categories.

Teachers

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As local, state and federal governments consider returning to school in person, the coronavirus poses a safety concern for teachers, especially those who are in higher risk categories. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention focuses on the importance of reopening schools and Student Health and Wellness, but offers less guidance around teacher safety. Subsequently, safety concerns remain. Thirty-six percent of teachers who responded to a survey identified themselves as being high risk, while 70% of respondents said they live with or regularly see an individual who is high risk. Reducing the health risk to teachers requires adequate incentives for students and staff to stay home if they have any symptoms. Incentives like the one in New York, which requires local education agencies to provide 14 days of sick leave to employees who are quarantined due to COVID-19, may help keep those with symptoms at home. 

The coronavirus pandemic has limited the use of traditional teacher evaluations, teacher preparation programs and professional development plans. Many states have allowed districts to make decisions around teacher evaluation requirements. States like Delaware (S.B. 42, enacted) have suspended their educator evaluation system for the 2020-21 school year, replacing it with an observation and feedback cycle. Connecticut issued a memo providing that student and family engagement may be used as measures of accomplishment. Professional development has also changed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, with many teachers pivoting professional development plans to focus more on distance learningThis public health crisis not only impacts current teachers but also those who are preparing to become teachers. While teacher preparation state guidance has varied, guidance changes have typically occurred in four areas: initial licensure and certification, clinical experiences, hiring and induction, and state standards and other program requirements.  

Virtual/Hybrid Learning

Virtual and hybrid learning plans require considerations among education policy leaders unique from In-Person Learning plans.

Virtual/Hybrid Learning

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Virtual and hybrid learning plans require considerations among education policy leaders unique from In-Person Learning plans. National survey results have painted a picture of the varied results of distance learning efforts across hundreds of school districts in 2020. Access to broadband and technology is essential to the equitable implementation of virtual and hybrid learning. National research continues to identify a digital divide between those students who have adequate access to the internet and a device to participate in virtual learning, and those who do not. Notably, this divide disproportionately impacts students of color, students in families with low incomes, and students living in rural areas. Many states have been addressing these broadband access issues in their reopening plans.  

Tracking student attendance and identifying chronically absent students can be tricky in virtual and hybrid learning environments when districts and states may not have clear standards for instructional time that includes virtual learning. Attendance figures, and related questions about how to integrate virtual attendance in calculations, also impact school and district Finance considerations. The WashingtonOffice of Superintendent of Public Instruction, for instance, has offered assurances that districts will receive full apportionment even if schools do not follow traditional modes of attendance in the 2020-21 school year.    

To better serve students in a virtual setting, some states have made a substantial investment in online learning infrastructure and professional development opportunities. For example, the Alaska Department of Education partnered withthe Florida Virtual School to establish the Alaska Statewide Virtual School, which offered remote courses throughout the pandemic and will continue to operate in the future. Additionally, Arizonaused CARES Act funds to establish the Virtual Teacher Institute to provide free professional development in virtual instruction for teachers in the state. Now, more students are learning virtually than ever before with an expectation that virtual learning will continue to play an important role as an instructional option.