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Guidance for Conducting CLASS® Observations of In-Person Teaching During COVID-19

05 Aug 2020 by Teachstone
COVID-19 has ushered in profound changes in how most of us conduct our day-to-day lives—social distancing and wearing masks have become the norm in many cities and states across the country. This fall, individual localities will determine whether their schools and programs will provide in-person, online, or hybrid teaching. CLASS® observers want to know how COVID-19 guidelines will impact CLASS observations when teachers and students are socially distanced or taking other COVID-19 precautions. This document provides guidance for how to safely and effectively collect CLASS data in schools and programs with in-person teaching during the time of COVID-19.*

* Related guidance for teachers will be forthcoming. We also recognize the interest from the field in using CLASS to assess and improve virtual teaching and are working with organizations that are piloting this work. We will be sharing guidance on the use of CLASS in virtual teaching as a separate resource.

Executive Summary

  • CLASS® observations remain an effective way to understand the quality of interactions and support educators in their professional development during the pandemic.
  • There are many decisions about how observations are conducted and used that will need to be made at the local level based on the impacts of the pandemic within the community. For instance:
    • Whether to observe in-person, through video, or at all
    • When to begin observations
    • How to use the resulting scores 
    • Whether to make comparisons between scores before, during, and after the pandemic
  • Observers need to prepare appropriately to ensure that they can conduct their observations safely and reliably.
  • Some behavioral markers may be difficult to assess or simply not present due to new health and safety procedures. All CLASS indicators remain codable, and this document provides some additional suggestions of effective behaviors observers may see.

Conducting CLASS® Observations

During these stressful times, children need supportive interactions more than ever, and teachers will benefit greatly from helpful feedback around those interactions. If children are attending school in person, Teachstone recommends the continued use of CLASS to understand the quality of classroom interactions and to support educators in their professional development. 

The decision of when to observe in person will depend on many factors, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the given community. For example:

  • A community may have had very few or no COVID-19 cases. Once teachers and children have had time to adjust and establish new routines, classroom observations may proceed.
  • A community may have had some cases, and may opt to conduct observations only for the purpose of professional development for a given time.
  • A community may have had many cases and experienced widespread effects. Observations may be suspended until teachers and students have had adequate time to adjust to being back at school, and then may proceed only for the purpose of professional development for a given time.

Additionally, the impact of the virus goes far beyond physical illness. Even communities without confirmed cases have suffered from the stress and tension of school closings, the inequitable impact of the pandemic due to systemic racism, and the economic impact of the virus.

These conditions may affect the transition back to school, and a waiting period may be needed before observations begin. Because circumstances vary by locality, we recommend that wait times be decided at the local level. We typically recommend that formal CLASS observations not be conducted in the first few weeks of school, in order to give teachers and children an opportunity to adjust to the classroom setting. While this advice remains valid, we also recognize that some schools and programs may need an even longer time to adjust, depending on how much classroom settings have changed since the time prior to the pandemic. In-person CLASS observations may simply not be possible in some localities for longer periods of time as programs work to limit exposure.

Comparison of CLASS® Data Before vs. During COVID-19

Just as decisions about whether or not to observe will depend on a community’s experience with the pandemic, decisions about comparing new data with data collected before the pandemic will depend on the circumstances. It may be necessary to suspend comparison of data in an area that was greatly impacted by the virus, as teachers and children may need more time to readjust to school. For example, teachers may need to spend a significant amount of time providing Emotional Support and establishing Classroom Organization, and spend less time on Instructional Support.

We recommend considering these factors, in addition to others specific to each school/program, when determining whether/how to compare CLASS data:

  • Issues of equity, such as how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted low income, Black, Latinx, and Native American/Alaska Native communities, communities that already experience a larger number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) under non-pandemic circumstances
  • Whether schools/programs closed during the pandemic
  • Length of time of closure, if the school/program was closed. The shorter the closure, the more likely teachers and children will restart, return, and readjust to their former relationships/interactions. Programs that were closed for a long time may need to shore up relationships and re-establish organizational structure after the long absence.
  • Whether teachers and children are returning to the same classrooms they were in prior to COVID-19. If teachers and a majority of children are returning to the same classrooms, it may be possible to compare current data to pre-COVID data, provided that teachers and children have time to readjust to the new school year.

Preparing for Safe In-Person Observations

Whenever observers are entering a new setting, it can be helpful to speak to the school/program and teachers ahead of time to gather information about the classroom. This is especially true at this time, when enrollment and health and safety practices may be changing from week to week. When preparing for in-person observations, observers should

  • Verify the date and time of the observation and learn what steps are being taken to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.
  • Understand the health and safety requirements for being on-site and obtain appropriate personal protective equipment.
  • Ask teachers about
    • The number of children likely to be present at the time of observation and the number of adults as well as their roles in the classroom
    • The best place to sit or stand, understanding that observers may not be able to move freely around the room while observing
    • The ways their interactions with children may have changed due to COVID-related health and safety restrictions
  • Follow the required sanitizing procedures upon entering the classroom and maintain the suggested or required distance from others, both adults and children, at all times.

Video Observation and Coding

Schools/programs that wish to avoid bringing outside observers into the classroom may consider using video observations. CLASS has been validated for use in coding videotape of classrooms (Mashburn, Hamre, Downer, & Pianta, 2007), and this method has been widely used in a large number of research studies. Provided that teachers can capture and transfer video footage, coding via videotape is acceptable. Chapter 2 of the CLASS manual includes recommendations for obtaining high-quality video footage. In addition, Teachstone has guidance on how to do this work.

COVID-19–Impacted Classroom Settings

Whether observers are entering classrooms in person or observing video footage, the classrooms they see may look very different this fall. Conditions will vary based on state and local guidance on re-opening, and some states and districts will have more stringent requirements than others. We expect to see use of the following precautions, in various combinations, in many schools/programs:

  • Temperature checks at the beginning of each day
  • Strict hand washing and sanitizing procedures
  • Limits on the number of children and adults in a classroom
  • Mask-wearing requirements for adults and children 
  • Avoidance of singing and other behaviors that increase emission of airborne particles
  • Social distancing measures, including a distance of six feet between desks and tables
  • Limited class rotation, with children staying in the same classroom and teachers rotating when applicable
  • Limited teacher movement within the classroom, with most teaching occurring from the front of the room
  • Small groups made up of the same children each day
  • Omission of whole group activities, such as morning meeting
  • No sharing of materials among children
  • Closing of common areas such as the cafeteria, library, and gym
  • Removal of soft surfaces and toys from the classroom 

While preparation is key to a successful observation at all times, this is even more true during a pandemic. Observers should take time to prepare mentally for how these observations may be different from those in their previous experiences. For instance:

  • Some schools are limiting children's interaction with one another by separating them into set small groups within the classroom. When this is the case, observers may consider the manual’s guidance related to coding center time at the high range of Concept Development: There should be clear evidence that the teacher is engaging in these types of interactions with students as he or she moves around the classroom with the assumption that, over time, most students will be exposed to the interactions. (p. 66, Pre-K manual & p. 68, K-3 manual)
  • Observers may need to look for evidence of CLASS indicators outside of the behavioral markers listed in the manual. Observers should remember that the listed behavioral markers are designed to illustrate the kinds of interactions an observer might see, but are not exhaustive. Additional behavioral markers not listed in the manuals can meet the overarching intent of both the indicators and the dimensions. The table in the next section provides some additional examples, but it should not be considered a complete list.
  • Observers will need to pay close attention to body language and other nonverbal communications to determine the intent and efficacy of interactions if the use of masks, social distancing, or video recording during observations makes it more difficult to see or hear. 
  • In those instances when they cannot hear well, observers should not attempt to intuit what the teacher and children are saying. Rather, observers should note, sort, and score based solely on what they see and hear.
  • If observers cannot see or hear teachers or children interacting at all, they must terminate the cycle.
  • Observers should review the section on “Remaining Objective” in Chapter 2 of the manual. Observers must avoid adjusting any scores because a teacher is “doing the best she can” in the current environment. 

Some observers may be nervous about how their ability to see and hear will be affected by COVID-related precautions in place in the classroom. Observers should recall that interactions are multi-faceted. The observer does not capture the fullness of everything communicated verbally and nonverbally between teachers and children during the observation period for any CLASS observation, even one conducted under normal circumstances. The observer is limited by the amount that they can see, hear, and note at once—there is always more happening than can be captured. All observers have been in classrooms where it is difficult to see or hear certain interactions due to the classroom layout, the general level of noise when young children are in a small space, or a particularly soft-spoken teacher. In these cases, observers must focus on what they can see and hear, which is typically sufficient to assess all CLASS dimensions.

We've outlined at the dimension and indicator level how the changes to classroom settings described above may impact the evidence for each CLASS dimension. The button below will open our full guidance for Infant/Toddler - K-3. Or, click the following links to access age-specific in-classroom guidance for: Infant, Toddler, or Pre-K - K-3.

Download Dimension-Specific Guidance

We hope this guidance is helpful in answering some of your most important questions, but we recognize that circumstances differ across the education landscape. Please use the CLASS Learning Community as a way to get feedback and dialogue with others about their approaches in this COVID-19 world. If you have thoughts you’d like to share or would like to consult directly with us, we’d love to hear from you. Email us at interactions@teachstone.com.