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April 19, 2022

School closures and effective in-person learning during Covid-19: When, where, and for whom

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The Covid-19 pandemic led many schools in the US to suspend or substantially reduce in-person learning. Available studies report conflicting results on the extent to which school closures helped prevent the spread of the virus. But evidence is emerging that remote instruction constituted at best an imperfect substitute for in-person instruction and led to substantial learning losses and social-emotional harm. These problems may have generated large adverse long-term effects, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. A key input for analyzing these consequences is the availability of consistent estimates of effective in-person learning (EIPL) across schools. 

In a new study, we match anonymized cell phone data from Safegraph on school visits to administrative school records. We then map changes in school visits during the pandemic to information on school learning modes to estimate EIPL for a sample of almost 70,000 schools that is highly representative of US public and private K-12 institutions. Our analysis of the resulting data provides several new insights about disparities in EIPL over time and across regions.

While EIPL dropped to less than 20% of its pre-pandemic level in most places during spring of 2020, it increased to over 50% on average during the 2020–21 school year. There were large differences across regions. For instance, in cities in Florida, such as Jacksonville, Orlando, or Tampa, EIPL averaged more than 75% of its pre-pandemic level from September 2020 to May 2021, whereas in cities in California, Oregon, and Washington, such as Los Angeles, Portland, or Seattle, EIPL averaged 20% or less during that period. 

The return to in-person learning was systematically related to observable school and local characteristics:

  • Compared to pre-pandemic levels, public schools provided substantially less EIPL during the pandemic than did private schools, with public charter schools ranking below public non-charter schools, and private religious schools ranking above private non-religious schools.
  • In both public and private schools, EIPL was lower in more affluent and more educated localities, in those with larger shares of dual-headed households, and in schools with larger shares of non-white students. 
  • Among public schools, EIPL was negatively related to pre-pandemic school test scores, school size, and to school spending per student, as well as to district Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding per student.

A substantial portion of these results is explained by regional differences unrelated to schools, reflecting political preferences, vaccination rates, teacher unionization rates, and local labor conditions. At the same time, we find that even after controlling for these regional differences, there remains a sizable negative relation of EIPL with a school’s share of non-white students and higher ESSER funding per student. This is important, both because schools with larger shares of non-white students generally perform worse in terms of learning outcomes even absent any differences in behavior during the pandemic, and because ESSER was advertised in Congress primarily as support for schools to reopen to in-person learning.

Overall, these findings clearly indicate that differences in EIPL during the pandemic had the effect of disadvantaging disproportionately minority school districts. To the extent that declines in effective in-person learning produce long-term negative effects on educational outcomes, these findings suggest that EIPL during the pandemic will exacerbate the inequalities that we observe in the US labor market.

© André Kurmann and Étienne Lalé

André Kurmann is professor of economics at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business.
Étienne Lalé is associate professor of economics at the University of Quebec at Montreal and an IZA Research Affiliate.

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