MANHATTAN — A survey by a multidisciplinary team of researchers at the Kansas State University College of Education has identified the top needs and challenges of K-12 teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 800 teachers in rural, urban and suburban school districts across the state participated in the project, “Access, Engagement and Resilience During COVID-19 Remote Learning.” Questions centered on four key areas: technology/access; student/parent engagement; educator resiliency; and social-emotional well-being.
The purpose of the study was to identify meaningful data for district administrators and policymakers for school reopening while informing K-State’s teacher preparation program. The survey was sent in May, about two months into the pandemic.
Debbie Mercer, dean of the K-State College of Education, noted Kansas schools were the first in the nation to announce closure due to the pandemic, which opened the door for substantive inquiry.
“Ten days. That’s how much time teachers and administrators had to move our state’s half-million students to online instruction,” Mercer said. “At the same time this immense transition was occurring, teachers themselves were dealing with uncertainties in their personal lives. Bottom line? Teachers need support.”
The findings revealed a myriad of strengths and weaknesses and identified universal needs for students’ social-emotional well-being, which was the teachers’ top concern; broadband access, which was deemed a dire need by teachers; educator well-being; and strengthening engagement in diverse learning environments.
The survey revealed several bright spots, particularly in the area of engagement:
• Teachers reported that 69% of students were considered highly to somewhat engaged in learning.
• Among rural teachers, 36% reported a higher level of engagement with their students, while 27% of all teachers reported that their personal engagement with students had increased.
• Nearly two-thirds — 64% —of educators reported an increase in personal engagement with parents during the pandemic.
But in the social-emotional well-being and technology and access areas, the survey revealed some serious challenges.
Four out of 5 teachers — 82% — listed social-emotional well-being as their highest concern, and this was across all school classifications, from 1A to 6A, and in rural, suburban and urban districts.
“I fear a mental health crisis is coming,” said Jessica Lane, a member of the research team and an assistant professor of special education, counseling and student affairs. “The survey results give voice to the experiences of Kansas educators and underscore the need going forward for policymakers and administrators to address the mental health and social-emotional well-being of both our students and educators. It is critical.”
Lane’s conclusion is particularly striking when the teachers’ personal situations were addressed. Survey findings include:
• Two-thirds — 66% — of suburban and urban teachers were simultaneously serving as caregivers to either their children, other adults or the elderly. For rural educators, this number rose to 4 in 5, or 79%.
• Some economic insecurity was experienced by 36% of teachers.
• About 20% of responding educators faced food insecurity.
The shift to remote instruction revealed significant inequities concerning technology and access to the internet. The survey found that broadband and educational technology are not consistently available in Kansas, and when they are, that did not translate into in-home access. This required teachers and districts to provide varied forms of instruction.
Nearly 70% of teachers indicated their districts worked with local internet providers to coordinate reduced cost or even free internet. Nearly 50% reported their districts provided hot spots or worked with community partnerships to ensure access for their students.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents — 65% — used technology to provide continuous learning opportunities, while 30% reported the use of take-home packets for students and 5% listed other means of instruction.
In addition to Lane, the other members of the multidisciplinary research team included Laura Bonella, associate professor at K-State Libraries; Doris Wright Carroll, associate professor of special education, counseling and student affairs; Morgan Jobe, program coordinator; Marilyn Kaff, associate professor of special education, counseling and student affairs; Tonnie Martinez, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction; Leah McKeeman, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction; and Cindy Shuman, associate dean for research.