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IES in a Time of Pandemic

Mark Schneider, Director of IES | March 31, 2020

Who would have thought that in such a short time our world could be turned upside down, disrupting our schools, our colleges, our lives? The coronavirus pandemic is also among the most consequential challenges to how IES conducts work and does business we have ever faced.

Every video conference reminds me of the value of in-person meetings. I miss the mindset that comes with wearing a suit and tie, though I must admit there's something to be said for working in jeans and a t-shirt. My greatest sympathies are with my colleagues with children. (I don't know what's more disruptive, having a 10-year-old home all the time or having your 20-year-old college student move back into the bedroom that you just converted into an office.) Even relaxing is fraught. This weekend I saw a TV commercial that showed crowded streets and people in bars—it felt like historical fiction.

Given all the personal and professional disruption, I want to let you know that IES continues to conduct the work that is central to our mission, including awarding new grants, preparing future grant competitions, planning statistical surveys and assessments, analyzing survey and evaluation results, and conducting peer reviews for IES competitions and reports. But this work comes with new challenges.

The reality is that the pandemic is affecting schools, colleges, and universities across the US—and that is affecting IES' ongoing and planned activities. Much of the research IES supports is done in schools, many of which are now closed, and many projects involve students, many of whom are now home. A growing number of states have cancelled the rest of the school year and many more have been granted waivers from state testing requirements. Not surprisingly, some data collections are on hold and many of our researchers are worried about the viability of their projects.

The research commissioners and their teams continue to reach out to our stakeholders helping explain how we are adapting to the COVID-19 crisis and how it may affect specific projects. As always, our program officers are the best source for information and advice about projects and needed modifications.

We realize that the consequences of the pandemic will include scheduling and financial issues; but at this time, it is hard to assess its full toll on our funded work, including both contracts and grants. In the short term, IES will be as flexible as possible in allowing extensions of reporting deadlines and no-cost extensions for grants and identifying modifications for contracts that may be needed in the face of massive school closures.

In the longer term, we will do everything we can to support the completion of as many of the critical tasks and objectives of funded projects as possible—all the while balancing the need for flexibility against our on-going commitment to rigor and measurable outcomes. IES has considerable autonomy as a science agency, but we clearly will follow the extensive (and evolving) national guidelines about flexibility in grants and contracts. For current guidance see here and here, but keep in mind that this guidance is being updated regularly.

One of our biggest challenges is trying to identify and disseminate information about programs and practices that could help parents and learners of all ages get through the next few months. I'm sure you, like me, are bombarded by emails touting a given program or product as a sure-fire solution to providing valuable education to your kids. But which ones really work?

NCER's Erin Higgins provides some useful guidance, and Ed Metz has summarized lots of lessons learned from the Tech Expo IES organized in January. In a new blog, Ed highlights games and technologies appropriate across different age spans and across a wide range of educational topics, such as for early learning, STEM, reading, and social studies. These technologies—many of which IES has funded through our Small Business Innovation Research grant program—are available for free through the end of the school year. Look for more of these kinds of well-grounded blogs coming from IES.

The Regional Education Labs are also stepping up. On Thursday, March 26th, REL Midwest and the Region 9 Comprehensive Center hosted a webinar for almost 1700 attendees on long-term strategies for teaching K-12 students in a virtual setting. And REL Southeast is planning to adapt the Kindergarten Teacher's Guide to Family Engagement into materials that can be distributed directly to parents, supporting those who suddenly find themselves educating young children at home. Again, look for more work from our RELs.

As a direct response to the challenges of teaching during the social distancing era, the What Works Clearinghouse is hosting its first ever citizen science project, the Rapid Evidence Synthesis on What Works in Distance Learning. The goal is to support educators who are called on to adapt their instruction to online formats or send learning materials home with students and families, not all of whom have internet access. The end product will hopefully help teachers combine available technology with other resources to create coherent learning experiences for their students.

Many of our grantees are also doing their part to offer activities for students with or at risk for disabilities. For example, Sarah Powell has many resources for teaching math available on her website, and her math tutoring for word problems is available now for free. Grantees Jill Allor and Stephanie Al'Otaiba have shared free resources for early readers. And Kara Hume and her team have shared a free toolkit to help families and caregivers supporting individuals with autism during the COVID-19 epidemic.

Throughout our response to the COVID-19 crisis, IES is trying to adhere to its fundamental mission of identifying what works for whom under what circumstance. Maintaining rigor under this unprecedented challenge is hard, but it is something that we will continue to pursue.

Maintain social distance, wash your hands, stay healthy and keep in touch as the world continues to struggle with (what we all hope) is a once in a lifetime event.

As always, feel free to reach me at