As students and educators head into their third full year of schooling during a pandemic, they’re doing so amid a flurry of conversations happening around support for their mental health.
What are behavioral issues and discipline going to look like this year? And where are the opportunities to make sure consequences are doled out equitably?
That’s what New York University researcher Richard Welsh tried to glean by looking back at how discipline practices have evolved throughout the pandemic. He sifted through media reports for a national view but looked closely at changes at one school district in the Southeast—an “urban emergent” district where Black and Latino students together made up nearly 75 percent of its roughly 13,000 enrollment.
Welsh’s findings were published in the June edition of the Peabody Journal of Education.
Among the most striking results was that, even when students in the district that Welsh analyzed spent little time learning in person, African-American students still received a disproportionate share of what Welsh termed “exclusionary discipline” that removed them from the classroom.
From 2015 through the 2020-21 school year, the rate of office disciplinary referrals (ODRs) issued to Black students held steady at around 80 percent. Before the pandemic, according to the study, Black students were three times more likely to face out-of-school suspension than their white peers. They make up only half of the students in the district.
The First Full Year With COVID-19
During the 2020-21 school year, the district in Welsh’s research reported less than 600 office referrals—more than 7,000 fewer than the previous school year—and an uptick in the use of student conferences and parent notifications over suspensions. The dramatic drop makes sense, as students spent little of the year in person due to COVID-19.
Welsh points to a few other potential explanations for the drop in exclusionary discipline cases, including that teachers may have been responding to students differently knowing the stresses caused by the pandemic.
He also posits that some disciplinary practices—like putting a disruptive student in a breakout room—simply may not have been recorded or recognized as discipline in the new virtual environment.
“You cannot tackle a problem until you see it,” Welsh writes. “The underreporting of discipline data may lead to the false evaporation of racial disparities in exclusionary discipline, mask the extent of exclusion in virtual classrooms, and undermine the urgent necessity of school discipline reforms.”
Re-Learning How to ‘Do School’
The 2021-22 school year brought its own challenges as the district in Welsh’s research—and others around the country—returned to in-person instruction.
Welsh found that office discipline referrals and suspensions, which he says are worrying due to the learning time they cost students, began ticking up toward their pre-pandemic levels.
Schools in the district reported more fights, and administrators told Welsh during interviews that students were coming back with notably less respect for authority figures. They seemed to have forgotten how to “do school,” according to the report.
The district was also grappling with educator and student mental health concerns not only from the pandemic, Welsh writes, but possibly from the constant pivoting and uncertainty it brought. New teachers and those suffering from burnout may have been more likely to use office referrals for student discipline, he says.
“Several stressors from the last school year are still present in schools and perhaps even more amplified both for students and adults,” Welsh writes. “There is frustration with learning loss resulting in an intensified relationship between academic and school discipline, socialization issues, and disruption in access to services.”
Whereas the previous year saw an increase in teachers communicating with parents—therefore perhaps avoiding office referrals and suspensions—Welsh says the second year of pandemic schooling brought with it a hardening of schools, “reverting to the use of exclusionary discipline or investing in school resource officers (SROs) and additional safety measures.”
Making the Next Year Different
With so many overlapping factors impacting student behavior and discipline, how does Welsh propose school districts approach the upcoming year? With more support at every level—for students, teachers, principals—both mentally and professionally. In particular, he says districts need to think about how trauma impacts Black students differently from their peers, and how it might affect their behavior.
Because while the pandemic—coupled with a widespread push for racial equity after the 2020 murder of George Floyd—once presented an opportunity to think differently about discipline in schools, Welsh sees the outcomes trending in the wrong direction.
“A converging perfect storm may unleash an expansion in racial inequities in school discipline in the coming school years,” Welsh writes, “if educational policymakers and leaders are not attentive to and strategically respond to changes in school discipline trends.”