Introduction

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.

Last updated September 16, 2020. New resource page coming soon!

Assessment and Accountability

While all 50 states, D.C., Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Education received federal testing waivers for the 2019-20 school year, states may still be subject to their state school accountability system requirements in the 2020-21 school year. 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 data vary. For example, in a letter to district and charter school leadership, the New York State Department of Education decided that the accountability status of all schools will be the same as the 2019-20 school year. In addition, 2018-19 results will be used in cases where 2019-20 results would have been used in making accountability determinations for 2021-22. In Wisconsin, A.B. 1038 (enacted) prohibits the department of public instruction from publishing a school and school district accountability report 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.

In addition to deciding how missing 2019-20 data will impact their school rating systems, education leaders may also be considering how to meaningfully collect 2020-21 accountability measures such as student growth and attendance data. We provide more information about attendance in the In-Person Learning section of this resource. Measures of school quality that inform states’ accountability systems may prove to be particularly challenging data to collect as it is still unknown how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact schools’ ability to administer assessments during the school year and other indicators, such as absenteeism and access to a well-rounded education, which will be difficult to measure in nontraditional learning environments. Researchers are concluding that canceling a second year of assessments may only deepen existing inequities, since assessments can help schools identify which students have experienced the greatest disruptions to their educational trajectory and need the most support.

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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, 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. One example of how a state is responding to this concern is Indiana where 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. Postsecondary enrollment changed very little in the spring of 2020, but institutions are preparing for enrollment declines and the resulting revenue losses during the 2020-21 academic year.

In March, 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 (GEER), the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) 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. Many states and education service providers are hoping for additional federal support.

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In-Person Learning

While states have varied in their guidance and response to reopening schools, most commonly, states are allowing schools to reopen or provide virtual learning dependent on local conditions and local health authorities. Most reopening decisions are being made at the district level. Although we address the issues facing Virtual/Hybrid Learning elsewhere, there are certain student populations for whom a return to in-person education may be considered a higher priority than the general student population. These special populations include students with special education needs who have been experiencing difficulties since the beginning of school shutdowns in the spring 2020; students and families experiencing homelessness and in need of special considerations; English learners who may especially struggle with remote learning; postsecondary students who need to remain in on-campus housing because of a lack of alternative housing and reliance on supports such as food provisions from their postsecondary institution; and international postsecondary students who are facing uncertainty in their legal right to enter or remain in the country if their institution only offers virtual learning.

Many states altered their attendance requirements for the 2019-20 school year amid disruptions. For example, Illinois passed legislation altering requirements regarding remote learning days and blended remote learning days for purposes of attendance calculations and minimums for students during the 2020-21 school year. Many states have included recommendations or options for staggering or alternating student in-person attendance on a half-day, daily or weekly basis to minimize the number of students in school buildings at any one time. For students who are or will be attending in-person learning, there are many health concerns that policymakers, administrators and practitioners are seeking to address (see Student Health and Wellness).

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Student Health and Wellness

A paramount question for the 2020-21 school year is how states, districts and schools will keep students safe in the classroom. For additional information on reopening plans, see In-Person Learning. Beyond providing educational services, schools and postsecondary institutions provide wraparound health and wellness services upon which many students and families depend — school meals, social and emotional learning, access to mental and behavioral health services and medical professionals. Continued access to these resources may depend on how education leaders plan to reopen schools in pursuit of in-person learning.  

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 Carolina, H.B. 1043 (enacted) appropriates funding for school health-support personnel to provide additional physical and mental health support services for students in response to COVID-19, including remote and in-person physical and mental health support.

Many states’ and postsecondary campus reopening plans address symptom monitoring, physical distancing protocols and cleaning procedures. Federal guidance focuses on communication, education and reinforcing hygiene and social distancing practices; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance and an FAQ document regarding school buses. Less prevalent are policies to support extracurricular activities and athletics. Many college athletes’ scholarships and eligibility are dependent on their ability to play. Athletic conferences and governors’ offices are leading the way with sports specific guidance for schools.

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Student Transitions

Considering that students finished the 2019-20 school year under unique circumstances and face another novel school year, education systems and leaders are working 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 or not to require a national standardized test score as part of the admissions process for 2021 high school graduates.

Grade promotion and student transition questions are always relevant, but they are particularly pressing given that all states, D.C., Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Education received waivers from federal testing requirements — and online/hybrid learning models adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are untested at a national scale. In response, state education policymakers have revised or issued guidance on grade promotion and high school graduation requirements. Greater flexibility is considered alongside concerns about pandemic related learning loss and that low income students (who are more likely to be Black, Hispanic or American Indian) will experience greater learning losses.

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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. 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. Professional development has also changed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, with many teachers pivoting professional development plans to focus more on distance learning. This 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.  

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Virtual/Hybrid Learning

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 income, 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 Washington Office 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.   

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 PUBLISHED: May 20, 2020

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 STATE(S): Nationwide

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