Groundbreaking Study: Relationship Building is Key to Schools' Post-Pandemic Success

Teachers, school leaders, students, and families breathed a collective sigh of relief when the 2020-2021 pandemic school year ended. But the hard work of rebuilding school communities is just beginning, according to Department of Educational Leadership and Policy professors Jennifer Jellison Holme and Huriya Jabbar.

They are the authors of “Repairing the Fractures: Addressing the Impact of COVID-19 on Schools,” one of the first studies in the nation to document the experiences of teachers and leaders during the pandemic.

Using 33 interviews, 844 surveys and 35 hours of observations across four large high-poverty Texas public high schools, Holme and Jabbar’s groundbreaking study offers direct insight into the intense disruptions that teachers and leaders experienced during COVID-19.

Unexpected Points of Impact

Holme and Jabbar were in the first year of a four-year longitudinal study of teacher retention when the pandemic hit in March 2020. They decided to pivot their study to focus on the impact of COVID-19 and worked with the schools to adjust the amount and type of data to be less of a burden on overwhelmed teachers and leaders.

As the study progressed, Holme and Jabbar observed that the schools had been thrown into chaos as routines were upended and roles shifted. This change had a negative impact on relationships in schools, because even though most teachers taught on campus, they no longer collaborated in person and rarely saw their colleagues.  

“As we start coming out of this pandemic, policymakers, and educational leaders need to be aware that schools have been weakened in ways that they can’t necessarily see,” Holme said. “Relationships within schools, between leaders and teachers for example, have been damaged and need to be shored up before we can hope to address other concerns.”

Investing in Social Capital

As part of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, K-12 schools will receive nearly $130 billion to safely reopen and support students. On April 28, 2021, Governor Greg Abbott announced that Texas school districts would receive $11.2 billion.

So far, according to Holme and Jabbar, policymakers and leaders have been largely focused on using these funds to invest in physical capital, such as personal protective equipment and technology, and human capital, such as hiring tutors.  However, research indicates that it’s equally important that schools invest in social capital, specifically rebuilding a school’s culture and repairing relationships.

“Social capital is like the foundation of a house, upon which we can build. Schools cannot function, much less improve, without strong relationships among teachers, leaders, and families,” Jabbar said.

Preventing a Mass Exodus

The report found that the stress of the pandemic has caused some teachers to leave the profession, while others have begun to question their commitment to teaching. In fact, 20 percent of the teachers surveyed by Holme and Jabbar reported that they were “very or extremely likely” to leave the profession within five years. And interviews suggest that the biggest waves of departures may be yet to come, as teachers had avoided switching schools during an uncertain year.

“We hope that our research may help prevent a mass exodus of teachers following the pandemic by encouraging investments in relationships and building social capital. Teacher turnover can further erode already strained relationships in schools, weaken culture, and also impede efforts to improve schools,” Holme said.

Preparing for 2021-2022

In the coming weeks and months, the researchers plan to work with the four schools to share their learning and offer guidance as teachers and leaders prepare for the 2021-22 school year. They are optimistic that their research-based recommendations will help school leaders and policymakers make better-informed decisions about policy and the allocation of federal resources.

“We’re hoping that our research can be a part of the conversation about reopening schools, not only in Texas but also nationally,” said Jabbar.

Key Recommendations

Jabbar and Holme make six key recommendations for district, state, and federal policymakers planning COVID relief aid.

  • Focus on rebuilding and strengthening relationships within schools between teachers, and between teachers and leaders
  • Provide added supports for school leaders who will shoulder the work of rebuilding after the pandemic
  • Intensify supports for students whose depth of “learning loss” is likely extensive, but will take time to assess and support
  • Reimagine accountability policies to account for the long-term learning and professional disruptions that schools have experienced
  • Rebuild and strengthen family-school relationships to improve communication and trust
  • Implement strong, targeted incentives for teacher retention, including both monetary and nonpecuniary supports to prevent large-scale staff turnover

Read the full report for detailed findings and policy recommendations: “Repairing the Fractures: Addressing the Impact of COVID-19 on Schools.”