Earlier this month, we released our report from a study of school climate in Pennsylvania, conducted in partnership with the Office of Safe Schools at the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). The report examined a handful of Pennsylvania schools that administered the state's (voluntary) school climate survey before, during, and after the 2020/21 school year, when schools had to operate much of the year remotely or in a hybrid mode that mixed remote and in-person instruction. Our partners at PDE wanted to understand how school climate might have changed during and after the school year that was most disrupted by the pandemic.
Spoiler alert: the findings were not what we expected. Despite the disruption the COVID-19 pandemic created and the enormous challenges associated with moving instruction fully or partly online, students and teachers alike reported healthier school climates (on average) during 2020/21 than in the years preceding or following. Students reported experiencing a school climate that was safer, more respectful, more supportive, and more caring. They also reported students in their school had stronger social-emotional skills. Similarly, teachers rated the climate as safer and more respectful and indicated students had stronger social-emotional skills. A year later, in 2021/22, both students and teachers reported school climate dropping back to levels seen before the pandemic.
What should we make of this apparent COVID boost for school climate, given the myriad reports of an epidemic of loneliness and a decline in youth mental health when school buildings were closed? To be sure, the study involved a small and non-representative sample of schools (18 with student survey results and 28 with teacher survey results); it is possible that these schools were somehow unusual and that other schools would have shown different patterns. But there is some external evidence that could make sense of these results if the pattern was indeed typical of schools across the country.
In fact, evidence related to the effects of school building closures on students' mental health is not uniformly negative. Notably, one study found that youth suicide rates declined substantially after school buildings closed in March 2020—and that increases in youth suicide rates during the 2020/21 school year correlated with returns to in-person schooling.1 Two other studies found that bullying declined substantially with COVID-19 related school closures.2, 3 These studies suggest that in-person schooling creates opportunities for bullying and for the kind of extreme stress that can lead to suicide. They are consistent with our finding that students in these Pennsylvania schools felt safer when schooling was partially or entirely remote. Thus, it is entirely possible these Pennsylvania students were typical of students nationwide in getting some relief from bullying and other extreme social-emotional pressures when school buildings closed.
If so, the next question is: What should educators and policymakers do with this information? Nobody is going to suggest that schooling should be remote all the time—the academic harms of remote schooling are large and well-documented.4, 5 Even so, the findings suggest there is a lot of room for improving school climate during in-person instruction. The public discussion about the effects of pandemic-related closures on students has largely been conducted as if in-person schooling was an unalloyed good. But if students and teachers alike perceive a safer and more respectful school climate online, and if reopening school buildings led to increases in bullying and youth suicides, then we all ought to acknowledge that schools sometimes produce serious social and emotional harms that deserve our attention, with or without a pandemic. Given the stakes for students, it is important to identify and implement programs and policies in schools that can reduce bullying and harassment, increase respect and safety, and support the development of students' social-emotional skills.
1 Hansen, B., Sabia, J. J., & Schaller, J. (2022). In-person schooling and youth suicide: Evidence from school calendars and pandemic school closures (No. w30795). National Bureau of Economic Research.
2 Bacher-Hicks, A., Goodman, J., Grief Green, J., & Holt, M. (2022). The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted both school bullying and cyberbullying. AER: Insights, 4(3), 353–370.
3 Vaillancourt, T., Brittain, H., Krygsman, A., Farrell, A. H., Landon, S., & Pepler, D. (2021). School bullying before and during COVID-19: Results from a population-based randomized design. Aggressive Behavior, 47(5), 557–569.
4 Goldhaber, D., Kane, T. J., McEachin, A., Morton, E., Patterson, T., & Staiger, D.O. (2022). The consequences of remote and hybrid instruction during the pandemic (No. w30010). National Bureau of Economic Research.
5 Kuhfeld, M., Soland, J., & Lewis, K. (2022). Test score patterns across three COVID-19-impacted school years (EdWorkingPaper No. 22-521). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: https://doi.org/10.26300/ga82-6v47.
Director for REL Mid-Atlantic