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Research with six Tennessee school districts shows inequities in how students experienced schooling during COVID-19

Yesterday the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt University released a report highlighting major findings from their work over the course of the fall semester with six Tennessee school districts. They examined student and teacher experiences during COVID-19 with the goal of planning how best to help systems recover from and compensate for the effects of the pandemic.

To help inform district decision-making around student and teacher supports this school year, TERA analyzed data typically collected by schools—such as enrollment, attendance and teacher retention data—and supported the districts in conducting surveys.

“By looking at student and teacher survey responses and other data available to us through our partner districts, we can start to understand more about how teachers and students experienced schooling during a very difficult year,” said Susan K. Patrick, lead researcher and postdoctoral scholar at TERA. “Our analysis confirmed that the pandemic deepened some of the preexisting inequities in these school systems, particularly around chronic absenteeism and student disengagement.”

Looking at common trends across the six districts, the main findings include:

  1. Students felt supported by their teachers, but some students struggled with motivation and engagement with virtual learning.
  2. More students were chronically absent this fall than in previous years, and absenteeism increased the most among English learners, students of color and students who are economically disadvantaged.
  3. Student enrollment decreased in the lowest grades, and more students withdrew for homeschooling, transferred to nonpublic schools and dropped out this year than in previous years.
  4. Retention rates for teachers and school leaders increased in all districts this fall, but many educators reported that they have had increased responsibilities, insufficient planning time and concerns with burnout.

These results speak to the ongoing challenges educators and students faced during the school year and point to important considerations for districts for next school year, such as providing targeted supports for students who have missed the most instruction during the pandemic and offering mental health supports for students and teachers.

“This school year has presented incredible challenges for students, educators and school systems,” said Erin O’Hara, executive director of TERA. “Some of these challenges will be unique to this school year, while others, like student and educator mental health and engagement, are certainly always going to need our critical attention. There are many lessons learned from this year that can and should carry over to the next school year as districts consider how best to support their staff and families. One of our biggest lessons has been that data can and should continue to guide decision-making and that asking students and educators about their experiences through surveys and in other ways is essential.”

Download the full brief, Schooling During COVID-19: Fall Semester Trends from Six Tennessee Districts, at

More about the Tennessee Education Research Alliance

The Tennessee Education Research Alliance is a research partnership between Peabody College and the Tennessee Department of Education committed to informing Tennessee’s school improvement efforts with useful, timely and high-quality studies.