Understanding the Impact of COVID-19 on Science Education
By Kathy DiRanna and Niu Gao
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect communities, California is confronting historic drought and wildfires. In these deeply challenging times, a public health crisis and the risks of unchecked climate change underscore the critical importance of science—and of strengthening science education and increasing science literacy, for today’s students and for generations to come.
The good news is that the California Next Generation Science Standards (CA NGSS) lay a strong foundation for transforming science teaching and learning. Adopted by the State Board of Education (SBE) in 2013, CA NGSS has the potential to improve students’ conceptual understanding of science, promote science literacy, and strengthen the global competitiveness of the state’s workforce. Professional learning providers—such as CASE, the K–12 Alliance at WestEd, the California Science Project, and County Offices of Education—have been working individually as well as through the CA NGSS Collaborative to help teachers, schools, and districts understand and implement the new standards.
As teachers and district personnel implemented CA NGSS, they recognized how these science education standards can help all students learn science while they learn to read, write, listen and speak, and think mathematically. By emphasizing the core capacities of social and emotional learning, educators used science to engage and motivate students. Teachers and districts were developing and actualizing implementation plans for CA NGSS. Things were looking up!
Then COVID-19 hit. The pandemic abruptly changed every facet of the education landscape—including progress on science education. A recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that COVID-19—and the resulting shift to distance learning for most students—caused major disruptions that could affect science education for years to come.
Here are some of the key findings and recommendations from this PPIC study, which was based in part on a survey of school districts across the state:
Before spring 2020, CA NGSS implementation was moving forward—though progress was uneven
More than 90% of districts surveyed said that they were implementing CA NGSS during the 2019–20 school year, up from 78% in 2016–17. Implementation was uneven by grade levels: districts were more likely to be implementing CA NGSS in K–8 than in high schools. There was also geographic variation, with only 38% of rural high school districts saying they were implementing CA NGSS.
COVID-19 derailed science education
A solid majority of districts (62%) said that science education became a lower priority during the 2020–21 school year. This meant that key CA NGSS implementation activities—such as aligning instructional materials and course models with the standards—were delayed.
Several factors contributed to science education being deprioritized: a greater emphasis on English language arts (ELA) and mathematics, staff shortages, teacher burnout, and a lack of dedicated funding for science education. However, some high-need districts—including those with large English Learner populations—did use science content successfully to engage students in ELA and math.
Districts provided limited support for science education amid the pandemic. During the 2020–21 school year, 60% of districts surveyed provided supplemental instructional materials, 43% provided summer science programs, and 40% addressed social-emotional learning in support of science education. Only a quarter provided small-group instruction, and very few offered extended science learning time during the regular school year. What’s more, only 40% of districts provided additional support to English Learners in science instruction.
Only one in four districts intend to prioritize science education during the recovery
PPIC’s review of the 2021–24 Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs) of 858 districts finds that nearly half of districts plan to adopt, develop, or purchase new science instructional materials. Our reviews also find that 38% plan to provide science teacher training, and 32% have set student performance goals on standardized tests in science.
However, only 27% of districts have made science a high priority in their recovery plans, whereas more than 80% are prioritizing ELA and math. Given the relatively low priority given to science, it remains to be seen whether the science education goals described in the LCAPs will be actualized anytime soon.
Realizing the Promise of CA NGSS
As schools recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, educators and policymakers should not lose sight of the need to consider science a core subject—and invest in science literacy. The 2022–23 state budget includes $85 million to support professional learning (PL) in math and science, an important step in advancing science education.
The state could also include science indicators in district accountability requirements—as a means of encouraging districts to dedicate more resources to science education—and provide districts with evidence-based strategies for supporting science education. At the same time, a broad range of educational partners at the state and local levels must work together to build a coalition that raises awareness and urgency among policymakers and secures additional resources to support science education.
What can YOU Do?
You care about science education—otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article! And there are plenty of ways that you can act on that passion.
If you are a district administrator or science teacher on special assignment (TOSA): Some of the additional funding for science education in the 2022–23 state budget will be used to provide an infrastructure for professional learning services. Learn how you can use district Educator Effectiveness (EE) funds and Instructional Materials (IM) funds to engage with these services. Read the Classroom Science newsletter and emails from CASE to stay abreast of how to apply for these opportunities.
If you are a science TOSA, a science teacher leader, or a district administrator or principal who promotes science education: PPIC’s recent report provides an opportunity to educate colleagues, parents, and business partners about the importance of advancing science education and science literacy. Point to how science education received lower priority than some other subjects during the pandemic
Highlight ways to leverage science education to meet district needs, such as increasing literacy, social-emotional learning, and equity. Provide PL opportunities at the district and school-site level that help teachers and administrators to embrace how science can be the “glue” that provides learning opportunities for all students in so many ways.
If you are in the classroom: You have the opportunity to integrate science into your instructional practices. Utilize phenomena to make learning relevant to your students. Experience how the three dimensions of NGSS—science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas—can support student thinking and sense-making. Emphasize how these dimensions also resonate with many of the practices and goals of ELA and math. Recognize that discourse in science supports discourse in other disciplines and that students read and write more comprehensively when they have participated in personal explorations of a topic.
As our state continues to emerge from the pandemic—while confronting other key challenges—educators have an opportunity to underscore that science is a highly valuable asset in these situations, not a distraction or additional burden. We cannot risk shortchanging our students by depriving them of science education and science literacy.
Kathy DiRanna is the statewide director of the K-12 Alliance @ WestEd, Emeritus. Niu Gao is a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.