Research shows changing schools can make or break a student, but the wave of post-COVID mobility may challenge the systems in ways we’ve never seen
Kevin Mahnken | December 28, 2020
The closing months of 2020 have brought little certainty to the question of when the COVID-19 pandemic will end. Through the beginning of a new school year, the drawn-out climax of a disputed election, and even the development of three separate vaccines, coronavirus infections and deaths have surged in a frightening second wave that has left tens of millions of K-12 students stuck in virtual classes for the time being.
But as 2021 nears, the mystery of when they will return to in-person learning will give way to the question of where they will return to. Whether most districts open their buildings this spring or must wait until next fall, a significant number of children will eventually find themselves enrolled in schools different from the ones they left last March. And the academic consequences of that change in environment may be huge.
Social scientists have spent decades studying school mobility, the phenomenon of students leaving one school and enrolling in another. Their accounts are complex and sometimes ambiguous. Almost every student eventually changes schools, even if only through grade promotion. The effects of those moves, particularly when they occur intentionally and strategically, can be advantageous to learning as kids embrace new academic challenges and a better social fit. But with few exceptions — military families being the most notable — students who move frequently tend to do worse than those who stay put. What’s more, schools that enroll larger proportions of highly mobile children are typically stressed learning environments where even non-mobile students struggle.
The tidal movements of school migration accelerated by the pandemic will push and pull various populations of students in radically different directions. Some families, economically unmoored by the shock of the COVID recession, will be forced to move to new school districts. The desperate parents of special needs students will search far and wide for in-person services to replace those their children lost in the spring. And with a number of major districts still debating when and how to fully reopen their campuses, those with the means and inclination will simply opt out of public education altogether.
Evidence of the latter possibility has been plentiful in recent months. Interest in homeschooling has exploded since the end of the 2019-20 school year, and an industry group for private schools has said that over half its members saw more inquiries this summer than in the previous year. The wealthy and cosmopolitan-minded have even been willing to leave the country for Canada and New Zealand.
But for students without international passports, the prospect of switching schools will often be colored by economic necessity and tortured decisions. Stefanie DeLuca, director of the Poverty & Inequality Research Lab at Johns Hopkins University, told The 74 that “the same vulnerabilities that were present before COVID will be exacerbated, especially with respect to housing.”
“In our work in a number of cities…much of the school ‘choice’ among poor families, especially poor families of color, was reactive — sparked by housing and other instabilities that we know are already increasing with COVID,” DeLuca wrote in an email. Those instabilities mean that parents are forced to seek new places to live and work, she added, “often finding that the neighborhoods where they can get housing have schools that don’t meet their needs.”
The persistence of American social inequalities, through years normal and freakish, mean that the present wave will unfold in some familiar ways. But COVID’s uncanny hold on our fears — the disease is killing more Americans than ever, even with treatments being rushed for public use — means that it will also uproot masses of children in ways somewhat similar to disasters like Hurricane Katrina, said Syracuse University economics professor Amy Ellen Schwartz. The scope of the changes make it “difficult to draw lessons from the existing research,” she said.
“You have to leave because your parent moves, that’s an individual experience. You have to leave because your whole school shuts down, that’s totally different. And we can think of lots of examples of that: school buildings destroyed by hurricanes, or wildfires in California. If I had to guess about what will be the impact, I’d want to think about that kind of mobility because it’s a shared experience, and you’ve got a bunch of kids in this boat together.”
‘In general, it’s bad’
The traditional forms of student mobility don’t look much like the kind precipitated by COVID-19 and prolonged school closures. But much of the research around unplanned or involuntary mobility — triggered perhaps when a student’s family circumstances change, or when they are expelled from their school — has shown negative effects, especially for children who move frequently.
Russell Rumberger, an emeritus professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has published widely on mobility and attempted to differentiate among its manifestations. In a 2015 brief on the existing literature for the National Education Policy Center, he concluded that most research studies had found “consistent and severe” negative effects on test scores and high school graduation rates.
In an interview, Rumberger gave his overall takeaway: “In general, it’s bad, and the more it happens, the worse it is.”
“How I look at mobility is through the notion of instability,” he said. “Kids crave and need stability — especially younger kids, but even older kids. You can have instability in your school life, or your home life, or your community, but the cumulative effect of this instability is problematic for a lot of kids.”
Moves between schools, especially those undertaken in the middle of a school year, can often be traced to destabilizing family events like divorce, eviction, or a parent’s job loss. Among the populations most likely to be chronically mobile are homeless and foster children, with one study of 159 students finding that they averaged eight school transfers during less than seven years of foster care. Because such transfers often allow two- or three-week intervals before students must be present at their new schools, Rumberger said, the moves are often entwined with long periods of absenteeism.
Even more prosaic changes have the potential to impede learning. Early education specialists have warned recently that the transition from preschool to kindergarten can be accompanied by serious anxiety, with low-income kids needing particular assistance in making the switch.
If a change of that magnitude, undertaken by every child in the country, can carry deleterious consequences, the upheaval of the coronavirus could potentially mark students for years to come.
A 2008 RAND Corporation study of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina offers troubling conclusions. An astonishing one-fourth of Louisiana’s public school students were at least temporarily displaced by Katrina’s destruction, and many were afflicted by setbacks that went beyond the academic, including mental health and behavioral problems. Schools with a high percentage of displaced students saw much higher rates of tardiness, verbal abuse of teachers, bullying, and even robbery.
Marshall Jean, a senior research analyst at the University of Chicago, said that the logistical difficulties and wholesale unfamiliarity characterizing large-scale mobility (often occurring due to promotional changes, like when a cohort of students moves from elementary to middle school, or when schools close for financial or academic reasons) made it more difficult for both students and schools to cope with the pedagogical challenge.
“A school counselor will doubtlessly find it easier to provide support for a dozen or two new entering students versus hundreds at a time,” he argued. “I would speculate that any substantial increases in COVID-related mobility will have similar destabilizing effects on academic environments that will exacerbate disruption in learning.”
Because highly mobile students are often carried on the winds of massive social disadvantage, however, it can be hard to differentiate the causal impact of a move from the circumstances that precipitated it. If a family moves to a new state after a family breakdown that involved domestic abuse, for example, the multiple layers of dysfunction preceding the school switch likely explain far more than the mobility itself. Julia Burdick-Will, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins, said that she considered the isolated effects of moving schools to be meaningful, but “not massive.”
“The effects of other things, like family changes and economic hardships, are probably larger,” she said. “For kids in those circumstances, if you can provide a stable school enrollment, that would be better. But you also don’t want to take it so far that you think that the school changes on their own are going to be the biggest thing going on.”
“The literature says, ‘These [mobile] kids do worse,’” she noted. “But really, on the whole, we’re unable to fully disentangle the effects of moving from the underlying factors that led to it. And from a policy point of view, I’m not sure it matters: You show me a kid who’s moved three times in the last eight months, I’ll show you a kid who needs special attention.
Effects on schools
Entirely apart from the effects of moving schools on individual students is the structural impact on the schools and school systems that enroll them.
Burdick-Will’s research largely focuses on youth in Baltimore, who are highly likely to move between schools in any given school year. She warned that COVID-19, which has already interrupted parts of two school years, could ultimately result in the kind of “unmanageable churning that makes enrollments really hard to predict and classrooms really hard to teach.”
“You end up dealing with a whole new population every year,” Burdick-Will said. “And that’s just if you’re talking about year-to-year.” When transfers occur in the middle of the school year, it can complicate teachers’ jobs even more. “Kids just show up in the classroom in the middle of the year, and the teacher doesn’t know anything about what they’ve been doing. That’s a real instructional problem.”
The academic losses are even felt by students who haven’t switched schools. In 2011, researchers at the University of Chicago published a study that tracked over 300,000 students who attended the city’s schools between 1995 and 2005. The negative effects of being enrolled in schools with high rates of mobile classmates accumulated over time, they found, contributing somewhat to the district’s mathematics achievement gap between white and African American students. Disturbingly, those effects were felt by both transferring students and stable students.
Several sources cited the danger that COVID-related transience posed to older students, who will exercise more autonomy than elementary or middle school students. One 2012 study found that high school “switchers” were 6-9 percent more likely to drop out than “stayers” who didn’t change schools. Johns Hopkins’s DeLuca, one of the paper’s coauthors, observed that the social ties tethering adolescents to their classmates, coaches, and instructors “can be what makes or breaks it when it comes to staying in school and staying off the street.”
“It’s not just about math and reading,” Deluca wrote. “it’s often about the enjoyment, motivation and support [students] receive through interactions with teachers and peers, inside the classroom and during extracurricular activities. Both, but especially the latter, can provide meaning, purpose and escape from the often unstable and difficult homes poor students come from.”
Given that dropping out is often a gradual process that can be halted by schools through outreach to absent or struggling students, it will be even more incumbent on schools to keep track of comings and goings once they reopen. Burdick-Will compared the data collection challenge to the one facing districts after disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
“Texas and Louisiana have systems for tracking enrollments and closures due to hurricanes in a way that a state like Maryland just doesn’t,” she said. “Even when kids go back to school, there are going to be two-week shutdowns here and there, and we’re going to need a system to account for those dates and figure out where those kids re-enroll. So it’s not a natural disaster in the same physical sense, but I think it’s going to have the same kind of social disruption.”
For all the academic and developmental dangers faced by younger students separated from their schools, Burdick-Will said she was grateful that her own children are still in the early grades.
“Kids in late middle school, high school, they don’t have the time to recover,” she lamented. “The consequences are greater because there are other options: They can just go to college, get a job, whatever. If it’s just temporary, kids are incredibly resilient. But if you’re late in the schooling process, or there’s other kinds of instability on top of it, then there’s no chance to figure out how to make it work.”