2020–21 Evaluation Shows Gains Despite Ongoing Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic
Omaha, Neb. — The Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan continued to make positive gains in schools that serve hundreds of children in metro Omaha in 2020–21 despite the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska today released the evaluation findings for the sixth year of full implementation and evaluation across six school districts in the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
During the year, the evaluation continued to assess school-level change, program quality, family processes, and child learning and development with a focus on program quality and child development and learning. However, the year was unlike any other in the history of Omaha metropolitan schools and the Superintendents’ Plan. In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led districts to close school buildings through the end of the academic year and transition to distance learning strategies and suspend year-end assessments. Some schools maintained distance learning strategies through the fall of 2020 while others returned to in-person learning. Families were engaged in home visiting that was virtual, rather than in person. These changes affected schooling for children, families, and teachers, and impacted the Superintendents’ Plan implementation and evaluation.
“Despite these serious challenges, the evaluation found that school engagement with families remained high, and professional learning opportunities and coaching continue to enhance classroom quality,” said Greg Welch, associate director of research and evaluation at the Buffett Institute and one of the authors of the report. “The successes of the Superintendents’ Plan are the result of an unprecedented level of effort and collaboration with our school district partners.”
Participating school districts in full implementation of the Superintendents’ Plan are Bellevue, DC West, Millard, Omaha, Ralston, and Westside. Across the districts 108 families received voluntary home visits—mostly conducted virtually and 2,799 children in PreKindergarten through Grade 3 participated in the evaluation. Due to the ongoing pandemic, school districts and the Institute did not participate in customized assistance in the 2020–21 school year. Professional development institutes moved to a virtual format, allowing greater participation than in prior years—more than 1,100 early childhood professionals registered for webinars on using digital technology to support children’s learning and development and on equity in early care and education.
Some highlights from the evaluation:
• Home visiting and personal visit participation has remained stable despite the pandemic. Efforts to engage families are increasing and many of the visits took place virtually.
• Family engagement, as connected to interaction with the home visitor, was rated in the “good” range in both the fall and spring.
• Parent-child interaction reflected that most parents involved in the home visiting evaluation were interacting with children in ways that supported early learning.
• Families perceived relatively high levels of engagement with schools, though families’ assessment of school engagement decreased during the pandemic.
• Family interviews showed that parents were positive about home visiting and family facilitation services to the family.
• The majority of children enrolled in home visiting were developing typically, according to parents.
• Academic achievement in Kindergarten through Grade 3 was assessed using school-based assessments in fall, winter, and spring. On average, children’s reading and math achievement status were slightly below the expected levels and varied by family and child demographics related to income, race, and ethnicity.
• Executive functioning in PreK–Grade 3 was in the average range.
• Schools are continuing to advance School as Hub principles (quality, continuity, and equity) through coaching and professional learning, by strengthening and building relationships with families and parents, and by bringing an equity lens to practices and policies.
“We are very grateful to be part of the Superintendent's Early Childhood Plan,” said Joseph Vonderhaar, principal of Sandoz Elementary in Millard Public Schools. “This partnership helps us to increase the levels of support we are providing to our students and families. The collaborative relationship has allowed us to better serve our school community.”
When schools were closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, program staff worked closely with partners in Omaha-area schools and communities to adapt programming and services to meet the needs of children and families. As the pandemic continued into 2020–21, collaborative efforts continued to provide support based on the needs of each school and community. Home visitors and family facilitators were quick to identify families who needed additional support to meet basic needs during the pandemic. Similarly, the Buffett Institute’s School as Hub program staff and family engagement specialists used virtual tools to deliver professional development and conducted regular virtual meetings to discuss emerging needs and solutions throughout the year.
The evaluation was conducted jointly by the University of Nebraska ̶ Lincoln’s Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families, and Schools, and the Interdisciplinary Center for Program Evaluation of the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute. Evaluation activities were supported by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.