Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education
A fifth grade student watches a lesson on her computer during school.

In the first comprehensive survey of California teachers’ experiences during distance learning, a majority confirm the biggest worries of many policymakers and education leaders: They say they believe their students risk long-term academic and mental health damage from the Covid pandemic.

And three-quarters of the 121 teachers surveyed say “less advantaged students” — low-income students, students with disabilities, foster, homeless and low-income children — will bear the brunt of the harm, worsening disparities in learning that existed before the Covid pandemic.

“When you have a school where 90% of the students live in poverty, it makes any learning hard,” said an elementary-middle school teacher in a north coast region school. “Some kids are thriving right now without the social pressures of being at school, but many are completely checked out. Many kids also don’t have access to the internet, which is a huge barrier even if they have a school-issued computer.”

The survey project, called the California Teacher Consultant Response Network, was created by the California nonprofit The Inverness Institute and education consultant Daniel Humphrey. EdSource is partnering to present the findings.

In late January, the teachers, who broadly represent the state’s teachers’ ethnic diversity, geographical distribution, subject expertise and grade level, responded to 25 questions asking about the state of students’ learning and emotional and social health, their own ability to deliver remote instruction and barriers to learning confronting their students and families.

The teachers amplified their answers with hundreds of frank, detailed and often poignant comments that show, the researchers said, “the distress, anger, frustration and sorrow these teachers feel as they describe the struggles of their students and their families.” To encourage candor, the researchers are not identifying the teachers’ names and their schools.

Inverness Institute selected the respondents from a pool of veteran classroom teachers who have participated in school improvement and curriculum networks and education leadership programs. Most have more than a decade of teaching experience. Two-thirds teach at the middle and high school levels. 

The first brief covers questions measuring students’ academic learning, and the second delves into their social and emotional needs. “Spotlights” in coming weeks will cover the teaching experience during the pandemic, teachers’ perspective on re-opening schools, teachers’ messages to policymakers and the pandemic’s effects on their career plans and those of other teachers.

Responding to the statement, “A substantial number of my students are in danger of suffering long-term academic damage,” 64% said they agreed at least to some extent, including 18% agreeing to a very great extent. Asked whether their “less-advantaged students will suffer the most long-term damage” from the pandemic, 47% said they believe they would to a “great extent,” while 90% said they would to at least “some extent.”

Similarly, asked “how effective do you feel distance learning has been in terms of meeting your students’ social-emotional needs,” 82% of teachers said that distance learning has not been effective or only somewhat effective, while 1 in 5 reported it had been effective.

And a third of the teachers agreed to a great or very great extent that “a substantial number of their students are in danger of suffering long-term mental health issues.”

Out of a list of seven potential barriers to effective teaching and learning, teachers cited non-academic factors as the most significant: upheaval caused by economic and social distress, emotional trauma of students and families, and social isolation.

“They miss groups, they miss classes, they miss the other half of the student body. They miss rallies and sports and clubs. They seem awkward and traumatized, but I can’t be sure if all of that is because of the knowledge of, and fear of, the global pandemic, or because their social circles have become so much smaller,” wrote a teacher in a northeast California school with 58% low-income students.

Lack of internet access and parental support were further down the list of barriers. But a number of teachers commented that students whose parents were able to stay home and provide help had an unmistakable advantage.

“Some students’ needs are very well met — the ones who attend all Zoom meetings and complete their work. These are students who have adults at home who are supporting them,” said a teacher in an elementary school with 65% low-income students in the San Jose-Monterey region.

“Again, I am not parent bashing”, said a teacher at a north coast elementary school with 96% low-income children. “They are working and are not trained to teach their children nor do I think they should be asked to. That being said, the shift of burden from the classroom to the home required more parental supervision and lack of it is a problem.”

About half of the teachers say they were somewhat satisfied with their students’ academic progress, with about a third reporting they are less than satisfied and a fifth saying they were more than or very satisfied.

“The advanced students are doing most of the work, but there’s less enrichment. The struggling students complete minimal work and overall participation is way down,” wrote a high school teacher at a school with 59% low-income students in the Central Coast region.

“Students are not able to focus or engage as they did when in person. Work completion is also much lower,” wrote a high school teacher at a school in the San Francisco Bay Area with 79% low-income students.

In California, the ratio of students to counselors is 622 to 1, the third highest in the nation. Two-thirds of teachers in the survey indicated there were significantly too few counselors, social workers and nurses to meet the social/emotional and health needs of students.

“Many students seem to be going through tough times,” wrote a teacher in a high school in the San Jose-Monterey region with 86% low-income students. “I know my advisees are doing poorly from a mental health perspective. This is also backed up by the fact that our school mental health counselor has a completely full load this year and can’t take on any new students.”

As for their own teaching, 81% described it as at least somewhat effective, with 6% characterizing it as very effective and 17% as less than or not effective.

“Teachers who are new to online platforms and educational applications are struggling to keep their content relevant and rigorous for students who are not engaged. There is a tyranny of the urgent — just transitioning to an online platform — that trumps the nuances and art of teaching,” wrote a teacher in a high school in the Central Valley with 90% low-income students.

Notwithstanding the pessimism of many comments, the researchers said they were impressed by the “resourcefulness and positivity” that they also found. Many teachers, they concluded, “are figuring out how to make distance learning work, and they are using the opportunity to help their students develop resiliency, independence and new skills.”

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  1. Ty 7 months ago7 months ago

    I think it's important to also note that these disparities for students living in poverty and students of color is nothing new- it's just now very obvious. The mental health of my students has chronically been a concern for me, why are we all of a sudden talking about it? Is it because this pandemic is now affecting the mental health of affluent white students? I challenge policy makers and legislators to not let go … Read More

    I think it’s important to also note that these disparities for students living in poverty and students of color is nothing new- it’s just now very obvious. The mental health of my students has chronically been a concern for me, why are we all of a sudden talking about it? Is it because this pandemic is now affecting the mental health of affluent white students?

    I challenge policy makers and legislators to not let go of this conversation once the mental health of our students is hidden away in the walls of our schools again – we desperately need counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every school. We need smaller class sizes so that teachers can effectively support each student in their life journeys. We need to value teachers for the professionals that they are, and stop expecting a teacher to be a crisis manager, therapist, and behavior specialist.