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Teaching Under Quarantine: Results From A New Survey

Studies point to alarming consequences for students of the sudden shift to distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. But what about teachers?

A new survey we conducted in April and May of 7,200 teachers in 194 rural, suburban and urban schools in nine Southern, Midwestern and Eastern states confirms that the health threats posed by the coronavirus, the move to remote teaching, and added care-taking responsibilities at home have created a uniquely stressful and demanding work environment for teachers.

What’s more, teachers’ responses reaffirm troubling projections of substantial student learning loss and the likelihood that differential access to technology and learning supports at home are exacerbating longstanding achievement gaps along racial and socio-economic lines. We developed the Teaching From Home Survey for Upbeat, a research group focused on teacher retention, to help districts understand and respond to teachers’ experience working remotely.

Teachers in every subgroup reported challenges with teaching remotely, leaving them concerned about their students’ academic success and less confident in their teaching abilities. Mid-career teachers—those most likely to have children at home—have particularly struggled to balance their work responsibilities with their home lives during the pandemic. And veteran teachers are more than  three times more likely to report uneasiness using the technological tools required for teaching at home than early-career teachers.

[Read More: The Dos and Don'ts of Distance Learning in a Pandemic]

Teachers estimated that only three out of five students are regularly engaged in distance learning, with wide gaps across racial and socio-economic lines. Teachers working in high-poverty schools and in schools that serve a majority of Black students reported that their students find it far harder to engage in school compared to students in more affluent, less diverse schools. Teachers in such schools said that students were less likely to have the technology they need to access online resources and that, as a result, were less likely to regularly engage in remote learning activities.

Teachers worried about their ability to successfully deliver instruction remotely. Most teachers reported that their district, school leadership, and peers have communicated effectively, are providing support, and appreciate their efforts. Even so, many said their sense of success has dropped substantially since the transition to remote teaching, with 73 percent feeling successful compared to 96 percent before the pandemic.

Many are struggling to balance their work with the demands of their personal lives during the pandemic. This is particularly true for mid-career teachers-- those with between five and 15 years of experience. Fifty percent of those teachers said that caretaking responsibilities for children or dependent adults made their job difficult, while only 39 percent of teachers with less than five years of experience and 30 percent with more than 15 years of experience reported the same concerns. These patterns likely reflect the greater likelihood that mid-career teachers have school-age children at home with them.

At the same time, , late-career teachers were less likely to report feeling adept at teaching online. About 13 percent of teachers with 20 to 29 years of experience, and 22 percent of teachers with 30 or more years of experience were not comfortable using online teaching tools, compared to only 6 percent of teachers with less than 10 years of experience and 7 percent of teachers with 10 to 19 years of experience.

The picture teachers painted of learning in these circumstances is troubling, especially for disadvantaged students. Teachers at schools a with small populations of low-income children reported that 75 percent of students were regularly engaged in remote learning. In contrast, teachers in schools with concentrated poverty report that only half their students were regularly engaged in remote learning.

In schools where fewer than 10 percent of students were Black, teachers reported that 72 percent of students were regularly engaged in remote learning. In schools where the majority of students were Black, teachers reported that 45 percent of students were engaged in remote learning.

[Read more: Who's Learning Under Quarantine, Who's Not]

Teachers also believed that student access to technological tools was a major challenge for remote learning. Overall, only three fourths of teachers reported that their students had the technological tools necessary for remote learning. Among teachers in more affluent schools, 87 percent agree their students had the necessary technology for remote learning relative to only 64 percent at high-poverty schools.

In schools where fewer than 10 percent of the students are Black, 81 percent of teachers agreed their students had the necessary technology for remote learning. In schools where over half the students are Black, teachers reported that only 66 percent of students had the necessary technology to engage in remote learning.

These differential patterns reflect systemic disparities across communities in education, economic, and health conditions. Both low-income and Black communities have contracted the coronavirus at higher rates than  others,  have been more likely to lose their jobs due to the pandemic, and have less access to remote learning. School funding models that rely primarily on property taxes exacerbate these inequities by creating a $23 billion funding gap between predominantly white and predominantly Black school districts.

With states and school districts already slashing budgets in the wake of the pandemic, the nation is facing an extraordinary education crisis in the months ahead.

Kraft, FutureEd's research director, is a professor at Brown University. Simon is a research affiliate at the Harvard Project on the Next Generation of Teachers. They conducted this research for Upbeat, where Kraft is research director.