After the Pandemic: Can We Welcome Students Back to Better Schools?

By Robert Slavin, PhD

Robert Slavin, PhD, is Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University and is a co-founder of the Success for All Foundation. This essay first appeared in Robert Slavin’s blog

I am writing in March, 2020, at what may be the scariest point in the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. We are just now beginning to understand the potential catastrophe, and also to begin taking actions most likely to reduce the incidence of the disease.

One of the most important preventive measures is school closure. At this writing, thirty entire states have closed their schools, as have many individual districts, including Los Angeles. It is clear that school closures will go far beyond this, both in the U.S. and elsewhere.

I am not an expert on epidemiology, but I did want to make some observations about how widespread school closure could affect education, and (ever the optimist) how this disaster could provide a basis for major improvements in the long run.

Right now, schools are closing for a few weeks, with an expectation that after spring break, all will be well again, and schools might re-open. From what I read, this is unlikely. The virus will continue to spread until it runs out of vulnerable people. The purpose of school closures is to reduce the rate of transmission. Children themselves tend not to get the disease, for some reason, but they do transmit the disease, mostly at school (and then to adults). Only when there are few new cases to transmit can schools be responsibly re-opened. No one knows for sure, but a recent article in Education Week predicted that schools will probably not re-open this school year (Will, 2020). Kansas is the first state to announce that schools will be closed for the rest of the school year, but others will surely follow.

Will students suffer from school closure? There will be lasting damage if students lose parents, grandparents, and other relatives, of course. Their achievement may take a dip, but a remarkable study reported by Ceci (1991) examined the impact of two or more years of school closures in the Netherlands in World War II, and found an initial loss in IQ scores that quickly rebounded after schools re-opened after the war. From an educational perspective, the long-term impact of closure itself may not be so bad. A colleague, Nancy Karweit (1989), studied achievement in districts with long teacher strikes, and did not find much of a lasting impact.

In fact, there is a way in which wise state and local governments might use an opportunity presented by school closures. If schools closing now stay closed through the end of the school year, that could leave large numbers of teachers and administrators with not much to do (assuming they are not furloughed, which could happen). Imagine that, where feasible, this time were used for school leaders to consider how they could welcome students back to much improved schools, and to provide teachers with (electronic) professional development to implement proven programs. This might involve local, regional, or national conversations focused on what strategies are known to be effective for each of the key objectives of schooling. For example, a national series of conversations could take place on proven strategies for beginning reading, for middle school mathematics, for high school science, and so on. By design, the conversations would be focused not just on opinions, but on rigorous evidence of what works. A focus on improving health and disease prevention would be particularly relevant to the current crisis, along with implementing proven academic solutions.

Particular districts might decide to implement proven programs, and then use school closure to provide time for high-quality professional development on instructional strategies that meet the ESSA evidence standards.

Of course, all of the discussion and professional development would have to be done using electronic communications, for obvious reasons of public health. But might it be possible to make wise use of school closure to improve the outcomes of schooling using professional development in proven strategies? With rapid rollout of existing proven programs and dedicated funding, it certainly seems possible.

States and districts are making a wide variety of decisions about what to do during the time that schools are closed. Many are moving to e-learning, but this may be of little help in areas where many students lack computers or access to the internet at home. In some places, a focus on professional development for next school year may be the best way to make the best of a difficult situation.

There have been many times in the past when disasters have led to lasting improvements in health and education. This could be one of these opportunities, if we seize the moment.


Ceci, S. J. (1991). How much does schooling influence general intelligence and its cognitive components? A reassessment of the evidence. Developmental Psychology, 27(5), 703–722.

Karweit, N. (1989). Time and learning: A review. In R. E. Slavin (Ed.), School and Classroom Organization. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Will, M. (2020, March 15). School closure for the coronavirus could extend to the end of the school year, some say. Education Week.