Q&A: What the 2021 Virginia School Survey Reveals About the Pandemic's First Year

According to new survey data, job satisfaction among Virginia teachers remained stable from 2019 through early 2021. But will that resilience persist through the pandemic’s second year?

Audrey Breen

Each year, teachers and students across the Commonwealth of Virginia are asked to participate in legislatively mandated surveys. To reduce the burden on those responding, in 2021 two separate mandated surveys on related topics were combined into one: the Virginia School Survey of Climate and Working Conditions, or the “Virginia School Survey” (VSS). It combined the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Service’s school climate survey with the Virginia Department of Education’s working conditions survey.

The 2021 VSS was administered to middle school students and all regular public-school teachers and staff between January and March 2021, offering a glimpse into what students and teachers were experiencing one year into the pandemic.

Luke C. Miller, research associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development with the EdPolicyWorks research center, led the team of researchers and students analyzing the survey data. The team’s first three research briefs covering their findings were published this week. Two more briefs will follow. We caught up with Miller to learn more about the survey and how it can help shape future decisions.

Q. What is the purpose of the Virginia School Survey?

I see two purposes, one short-term and one long-term. In the short-term, the survey provides an opportunity to hear from students, teachers, and staff about how they perceive their school’s climate and working conditions. Over the long-term, the survey provides a tool for division and school leaders to monitor and ensure all students and staff have access to a healthy and positive environment in which to learn, work, interact, and grow. 

Q: How many students and teachers completed the survey?

The student survey was administered to students in grades 6-8 in middle schools. Schools could survey the entire grade or a random sample of 25 students per grade. Of the students invited to complete the survey, 102,519, or 63 percent responded.

All licensed teachers and any other individual holding a state professional license were invited to complete a survey regardless of grades served at their schools. Schools had the option of inviting other non-licensed staff members to complete the survey (such as nutrition, custodial, and office staff). 

Of those invited to complete a survey, we received responses from 71 percent of teachers (68,414), 60 percent of teacher aides (12,411), 45 percent of licensed staff (13,228), and 29 percent of non-licensed staff (7627).

Q. This is a regularly scheduled survey. How was it tailored to capture what was happening in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The 2021 survey is part of an ongoing state effort and not something triggered by the pandemic. The content was largely based on the 2019 Virginia Working Conditions Survey and the 2020 school climate survey; however, we added questions to capture how adults and students engaged with and felt about their school during the pandemic.

For example, we asked teachers and aides whether they had taught students in-person, remotely from the school building, or remotely from elsewhere (this question was tweaked to ask staff about how they conducted their work and to ask students about how they attended school); we asked how comfortable they were returning to school after the March 2020 shutdown; and we asked how their working conditions and school climate had changed over the last two years.

Q: What stood out to you most about the 2021 survey results?

The most striking results were the top line results from teachers. Given the impact the pandemic was known to have had on public education (the shift to remote instruction, for example), I had expected teacher job satisfaction to be low. Same with their intentions to remain at the school the following school year, 2021-22. I had assumed that large numbers would tell us that they intended to stop teaching at their current school. This was not the case. Job satisfaction and retention intentions among teachers in 2021 were similar to what they were in 2019 (pre-pandemic). 

However, the results continued to show that students and employees felt less positive in schools where the majority of students are Black or Hispanic or the majority are economically disadvantaged, compared to schools where the majority of students are white or the majority are not economically disadvantaged. We saw this pattern in earlier years’ surveys as well. This pattern was echoed in 2021 when we asked respondents how comfortable they were returning to school following the March 2020 closures. Students and employees in schools where the majority of students are Black or Hispanic or the majority are economically disadvantaged were less comfortable returning than those in schools where the majority of students are white, or the majority are not economically disadvantaged.

If we are committed to closing gaps among groups of students, we need to take actions to improve school climate for students and working conditions for teachers and staff, especially in schools serving large numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Research shows that working conditions and school climate are positively related to desirable outcomes for students, teachers, and staff.

We’ve also taken a deeper look into how school employees feel about their professional growth opportunities. Only 15 percent rate them as effective. If we think about how schools are going to recover from the pandemic, effective professional growth opportunities will be essential; perhaps on topics such as how to help students make up learning losses and trauma-informed pedagogy.

The other topic we examined was instructional agency for teachers and teacher aides. The teacher results were interesting, with 26.5 percent reporting very high levels of classroom autonomy yet only 8 percent reporting that they felt very high levels of being respected as valued professionals.

Q. Again, we find our current circumstances different from those in early 2021. What insights can we glean from this survey data that might be helpful right now?

I see a good amount of resilience in the 2021 survey results. Yes, things weren’t universally great, but folks were doing their best to get through the year and minimize the pandemic’s negative impact on students. I worry that for many people, their resilience is diminished in 2022, if not gone entirely.

There are several findings from teachers that make me concerned for how teachers are feeling this year. In 2021, teachers were the least comfortable compared to other school employees returning to school in-person. They also were more likely than other school employees to indicate that their working conditions had worsened since 2019. I worry that the well-documented struggles of the current year will increase negative sentiments among teachers. We’ll get a read on this later this year when the results of the 2022 survey of high school students, teachers, and staff are available and again next year when elementary and middle school teachers and staff plus middle school students are surveyed.

I know that teachers and division and school leaders have a ton on their plates right now. Every day there are fires that must be put out ASAP. This limits their ability to pause, step back, and do some long-term improvement planning. But this is what is needed. The survey results show that.

The status quo that existed before the pandemic wasn’t working great for everyone. The changes wrought by the pandemic have eroded that status quo for many people in many schools. The Virginia School Survey provides an early glimpse of that. If we are going to rebuild to where we not only retake ground lost during the pandemic but also move beyond where we were, we need everyone working together. That includes everyone with oversight of public education in Virginia including division and school leaders, VDOE, Board of Education, legislators, and the governor and his team. I don’t think the pandemic is something that we can expect to overcome through tinkering around the edges.

Q. What else are you hoping to learn from the survey data?

My team and I are working on two lines of analysis into teacher working conditions.

In one project, we are developing profiles of schools based on the working conditions they provide to teachers. We often talk about working conditions as a one-dimensional construct (“if we improve teacher working conditions, we will retain more teachers”); yet, we measure working conditions as a multi-dimensional construct. The VSS captures measures of 8 dimensions: instructional agency, physical environment, rigorous instruction, school leadership, managing student behavior, professional growth opportunities, family engagement, and safety. Typically, we then analyze these dimensions in a way that doesn’t speak to how they coexist within a school. The profiles will do this – speak to how they coexist within a school. We will then use these profiles to see how working conditions are predictive of teacher retention and equitable student outcomes.

In the second study, we are diving more into how teachers who responded to the 2021 survey felt their working conditions changed between 2019 and 2021. Teachers were most likely to say they had stayed about the same (44 percent). Perhaps surprisingly, 33 percent said they had gotten better and 24 percent said they had gotten worse. Conventional wisdom would have predicted otherwise – more saying working conditions had worsened rather than improved. So, we’re going to see what factors are predictive of improvements versus deteriorations.

We’ll look not just at teacher and school characteristics, but also factors related to the pandemic and its consequences. Things like their views of the districts’ response to the pandemic and whether they taught in-person; their district’s learning modality and whether computers were distributed to all students; and the community’s experience with the virus, broadband access, and political views.

Virginia Policy Partnership Collaborative

This work is part of the ongoing efforts aimed at connecting UVA researchers and students with education policymakers to address pressing education problems in the Commonwealth through careful research.

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