The National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice — based at Tulane University — will study how traditional, charter, and private schools across the country are responding to the coronavirus, according to a Tuesday press release.

The research will be funded by a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, an extension of REACH’s founding grant. Doug Harris heads the organization, which was created to examine school choice across the country. He also runs the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, a group that focuses on charter schools and their performance locally.

“After the crisis hit, we just started to think of what’s the most useful thing we can do,” Harris said in an interview Tuesday. “We have all these papers in the hopper … but we just sort of put everything on the shelf. What can we do in the short-term to be helpful?”

With schools shuttered across the country, the study will analyze instructional delivery, how students are interacting with teachers, what types of software they are using and how long students are expected to work. REACH will also use other federal student data and census data, and be able to compare educational expectations across regions, type of school — traditional, charter or private — and socioeconomic status of students. 

Harris said REACH was already working with the computer science department at Tulane. When the crisis began, he and his colleagues at the organization noticed a change in school websites.

“Most school websites for average times are really pretty cookie-cutter,” he said. “But then when this came up, we started to see schools really were putting up information on their websites.”

“This was something we were well-situated to handle,” Harris said, noting the partnerships. 

Harris said the work aims to cover every district in the country, there are about 14,000 of them. Add in charter schools and private schools, and the number increases about tenfold. 

The REACH study will examine 150,000 schools across the country, in an effort to assess equity, district spending, how schools are serving students with disabilities and students’ access to the internet during widespread suspensions of in-person classes, according to a release.

“Because of the urgency of the project, our aim is to release an initial summary of the results in early summer, in time to inform actions for the coming school year,” the press release said. 

REACH had already partnered with Great Schools, a school review website, and was merging their data with federal datasets, Harris said.. That work was also being done by Tulane’s Computer Sciences Department.

The study will begin with information compiled by employees from about 3,600 school websites and then teach computers to seek out that same information from the remaining school websites.

“It’s a tricky project,” Harris said. “I think the key is to be able to be confident in what we’re saying and be able to say as much as we can.” 

Locally, the NOLA Public School district has helped schools provide laptops and hotspots to students stuck at home under state orders that have shuttered schools through the end of the school year. 

It’s unclear if summer school can be held in-person or will be offered online. Some schools are planning for both, while some have committed to online summer school. Others are planning to start the school year early in the fall to make up for lost learning time. 

A Louisiana Department of Education survey of districts and independent charters — many of which act as their own districts — showed many schools lacked technology resources for students and wanted help in other areas, such as teaching students with disabilities and training teachers on how to teach remotely. 

Harris said the study will also examine additional aspects of curriculum, such as instructional time and methods. It will analyze “other kinds of communication that students are having with teachers, like office hours. And the kinds of instruction whether it’s live video, recorded video with their teacher, or Khan academy.”

“Also actually another interesting one, especially for New Orleans, is the access to counselors,” Harris said. 

REACH hopes to release preliminary information in the summer. 

“We’re mainly interested in informing policy makers and we’re starting to get calls from congressional policymakers,” he said.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...