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January 13, 2021 Feature

Schooling in the Time of COVID-19

By V. Darleen Opfer

What’s Happened to Schools? How Have They Responded? And What Does It Mean for the Future of U.S. Education?

American schools were completely unprepared to deliver remote education when COVID-19 struck in March 2020. Most delivered some form of grade- and subject-specific curriculum, but it varied widely according to one analysis done in May 2020.1 Some students got live video instruction; others, recorded lessons. Some got one-on-one phone calls; others picked up packets of photocopied handouts. Only one-third of school districts required teachers to continue to contact their students during that initial shutdown.

The collapse of public education during the pandemic, a mainstay of our democracy, should be a national crisis, but instead—much like the pandemic itself—the response has been splintered and local. As a result, it’s creating damage for students that is likely to have ramifications for a generation.

Early Problems Posed by the Pandemic

In districts serving large populations of low-income students, learning initially took a back seat to meeting more basic needs, like food. Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the third-largest school district in the country, set up over a hundred “grab and go” food distribution sites across the city2 where parents could pick up meals for their children. By June 1, 2020, CPS had distributed more than 12.5 million meals to families.3 Chicago was not unusual. Most districts in the country had to develop and implement such plans within days of closing their classrooms and cafeterias.

Districts next had to decide how best to deliver instruction. Lack of internet service—or computers or tablets—posed significant barriers, especially for high-poverty and rural students. An analysis of access conducted by Boston Consulting Group and Common Sense Media found that of the 50 million K–12 public education students in the United States, 15–16 million (approximately 30%) lacked access to either the internet or connected devices, and 9 million lacked both.4 Further, about 10% of teachers—some 400,000 of them—didn’t have internet access either and were unable to teach. All fifty states experienced the problem, and in the worst cases, half of the students had no internet access.

It would cost an estimated $6 billion, and possibly as much as $11 billion, to close this access gap. To connect every teacher to the internet would cost an additional $1 billion. Some districts equipped school buses with Wi-Fi hotspots and parked them in low-income neighborhoods.5 Others forged public-private partnerships to deliver devices and connectivity.6

But those efforts were exceptions, and large percentages of students remain offline today. Many urban and rural districts sent home packets of worksheets, or offered nothing to their students from March through the end of the schoolyear. In May 2020, my RAND colleagues surveyed nationally representative samples of teachers and school leaders, using the American Educator Panels,7 and found, for instance, that only 50% of secondary teachers and 19% of elementary teachers were even assigning grades.8

More important than grades is what was being taught. The answers there were troubling too. Only 12% of teachers reported that they covered all or nearly all of the curriculum they would have if schools had remained open. Only 7% of the small-town and rural teachers reported covering all or nearly all of their curriculum. In high-poverty schools, a large segment of teachers reported spending the majority of their time reviewing content rather than teaching anything new. Likewise, teachers in small towns and rural schools reported mostly reviewing content that was taught before COVID-19 at higher rates than teachers in suburbs or cities.

Unsurprisingly, our principal survey respondents listed internet and device access as the most significant barrier to delivering instruction. Nearly twice as many principals in high-poverty schools reported technology needs for students and teachers as major or very major needs, compared to principals in low-poverty schools.9

There Was a Lack of Guidance for Schools as the Pandemic Progressed

Not much has changed since schools closed in spring 2020. The federal government and most states provided little guidance on how to reopen schools. Districts and their schools were, once again, left on their own to figure out how they should offer instruction in fall 2020. An analysis of state plans by researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) found that only two states—Arkansas and New Jersey—directed districts on how instruction should be provided.10 Arkansas required schools to offer blended learning (often referred to as a hybrid model), where students spend part of their week in person and the other part online. New Jersey directed its districts that if they could meet health and safety protocols, they should be open for in-person instruction. Florida attempted to mandate that schools reopen to in-person instruction, but a Florida judge issued an injunction blocking the order and allowing local school boards to decide on the type of schooling they would provide. As MSU reported, “No state was prepared to immediately shift to an online learning platform or distribute computer and internet resources to students statewide” despite having months to plan to do so.

That left school districts to make decisions independently, often in highly politicized environments. An analysis by the Brown Center for Education Policy at the Brookings Institution found no relationship between the level of COVID-19 cases in a school district and the decisions about whether to reopen to in-person instruction in fall 2020. There was, however, a statistically significant relationship between the decision to reopen classrooms and the percentage of the district’s population that voted for President Trump.11 In places with strong teachers’ unions, decisions were often made to remain remote or delay opening school even when local virus caseloads were low enough to reopen safely.12 With strong local political opinions and weak state-level leadership, instruction in the United States is now far more unequal than it needs to be, and achievement disparities are certainly getting worse.

Reopening Plans Have Been Inconsistent

Now with the 2020–2021 school year underway, other concerning trends are surfacing. Researchers at the Center for Reinventing Public Education analyzed a nationally representative sample of 477 district reopening plans.13 Their analysis showed a significant urban-rural divide in reopening plans. Few suburban (24%) and urban (9%) districts planned to offer in-person options, while 65% of rural districts planned to offer full, in-person instruction. Very few districts varied their plans by age or for students with special learning needs.

Of all the districts with high concentrations of poverty—including most large districts—41% planned to start the year fully remote. High-poverty districts also were the least likely to have a hybrid plan, likely because of the complexity and cost of that approach. And yet these are the students with the greatest risk of more learning loss with all-remote learning. They may have less or no dedicated space to work, have parents who work outside the home, and need the most support socially, emotionally, and academically. It will be hard for them to build strong relationships with teachers, which is critical to their success.

The Problems of Remote Learning and “Learning Loss”

The evidence for the efficacy of remote, online instruction is also not promising. A recent evidence review conducted by the Education Endowment Fund in the United Kingdom found that various forms of online learning are less effective than either hybrid or in-person models.14 Further, most studies of online learning are of adults or college-age students. There is almost no evidence of its impact on younger students beyond studies of specific educational games. What evidence we do have on technology use by young students suggests that it negatively affects behavior, attention, focus, academic development, weight, social development, and language development.15 Prolonged remote learning could worsen achievement gaps and have other harmful health and developmental effects.

Educators and researchers expect significant learning loss by students. One set of researchers modeled potential learning loss using projections found in previous studies and looking at summer learning loss patterns for 5 million students. Their models showed that, on average, current students would start fall 2020 with 63–68% of their learning in reading when compared with a typical school year. They would start with only 37–50% of what they would have typically learned in a year of math.16 Their models did not account for students with more significant learning needs either, such as those receiving special education, English language learners, and students from low-income homes.

Most educators and researchers assume that the COVID-19 pandemic will significantly increase the achievement gaps between lower- and upper-income students and between white students and students of color. The average Black and Hispanic students, before the pandemic, were roughly two years behind their white peers. Before the epidemic, McKinsey & Company calculated that the racial achievement gap costs the U.S. economy 2–4% of GDP annually, with the low-income gap costing 3–5% of GDP.17 Post-pandemic, we can expect learning loss to cost the U.S. economy significantly more than that.

Recent research into learning loss finds that achievement disparities have been growing not because some students lose a significant amount of their learning in the summer months, but rather because middle-class and upper-income students tend to gain in achievement over the summer.18 Even if learning loss were preventable during the pandemic, students with the most significant learning needs would still fall even further behind their peers.

Schools Are Now under Significant Financial Pressure

What is particularly daunting for districts is the increased costs of running multiple forms of schools while the tax revenue on which they rely falls.19 In April 2020, the Council of Great City Schools, an organization of the sixty-two largest school districts, sent a letter to Congress warning that if they did not receive $200 billion in additional funding, it would mean laying off 275,000 teachers.20 As of October 2020, that money has not been forthcoming. Even districts that remain fully remote must maintain rosters of custodians, bus drivers, and substitute teachers even when they are not using them. At the same time, they have to invest in technology, online platforms, and professional development programs to train teachers in their use.

In the meantime, states continue to enact large budget cuts to K–12 spending. In July, Georgia announced $950 million in cuts, and Nevada cut its K–12 budget by 25%.21 Cuts that large have historically resulted in lower student achievement and lower graduation rates. A recent study of the Great Recession found that cutting school budgets by 10% resulted in a fall on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) of 7% of a standard deviation on exam results.22 The same study found that graduation rates declined 2–3% for students who were in high school when the cuts were enacted. The damage the pandemic has done to student achievement will be felt for years even after schools return to normal.

Hope for the Future?

Despite that bleak picture, some schools and districts handled school closures and reopening well. From these cases and existing education research, a consensus among researchers has emerged on what may be necessary for schools to come out of the pandemic effectively. Many researchers and research organizations, including RAND, came together at the start of the epidemic to pool our efforts to understand what has happened to schools and develop ways for them to recover. That effort, The Evidence Project,23 has become a repository of research-based information for policymakers and practitioners to understand their options. Some researchers active in The Evidence Project issued a joint letter over the summer that made seven recommendations:24

  1. Provide substantial additional resources to prevent looming school budget cuts.
  2. Implement universal internet and computer access.
  3. Target resources to those most in need.
  4. Provide the most personalized and engaging instruction possible under the circumstances, even when it is necessary to be online.
  5. Address the learning losses created by the crisis by expanding instructional time in ways that challenge, support, and engage students.
  6. Offer tailored, integrated support to each child in order to address social-emotional, physical health, and family well-being.
  7. Make decisions about teachers that support pedagogical quality and equity. [That is, the letter suggests that districts retain the best teachers, rather than use a last-in, first-out process to lay off teachers.]

Individual districts and schools are not going to be able to solve this problem on their own, as that list makes clear. The education crisis wrought by COVID-19 is going to require leadership at the state and federal levels to keep schools in the United States from declining further and harming generations of students to come.


1. Bethany Gross & Alice Opalka, Too Many Schools Leave Learning to Chance During the Pandemic (Ctr. on Reinventing Pub. Educ. May 2020),

2. CPS Grab-and-Go Meal Sites, Chi. Pub. Sch.,

3. Nader Issa, CPS to Resume Food Distribution Program After Safety Concerns Led to Day-Long Suspension, Chi. Sun Times (June 1, 2020),

4. S. Chandra et al., Closing the K–12 Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning (Common Sense Media & Bos. Consulting Grp. 2020).

5. Alaa Elassar, Austin School District Deployed over 100 School Buses Equipped with WiFi for Students Without Internet Access, CNN (Apr. 14, 2020),

6. Internet Access, Balt. City Pub. Sch.,

7. American Educator Panels, RAND: Educ. & Lab.,

8. Laura S. Hamilton, Julia H. Kaufman & Melissa Diliberti, Teaching and Leading Through a Pandemic: Key Findings from the American Educator Panels Spring 2020 COVID-19 Surveys (RAND Corp. 2020),

9. Id.

10. State Policies to Address COVID-10 School Closure, Inst. for Pub. Pol’y & Soc. Rsch., Mich. St. Univ.,

11. Jon Valant, School Reopening Plans Linked to Politics Rather Than Public Health, Brookings Inst.: Brown Ctr. Chalkboard (July 29, 2020),

12. Howard Blume & Laura Newberry, California Teacher Unions Fignt Calls to Reopen Schools, L.A. Times (Oct. 16, 2020),; Perry Stein, Negotiations Stall Between D.C. Teachers Union and the City over School Reopening Plans, Wash. Post (Oct. 15, 2020),; Christopher Gavin, Boston Teachers Union Releases Statement on Decision to Delay Phased-in School Reopening, MSN (Oct. 7, 2020),

13. Bethany Gross, Alice Opalka & Padma Gundapaneni (2020), Getting Back to School: An Update on Plans from Across the Country (Ctr. on Reinventing Pub. Educ. Aug. 2020),

14. Educ. Endowment Found., Remote Learning: Rapid Evidence Assessment (Apr. 18, 2020),

15. Common Sense Media, Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America (Oct. 2011).

16. Megan Kuhfeld et al., Projecting the Potential Impacts of COVID-19 School Closures on Academic Achievement (Annenberg Inst., Brown Univ. EdWorkingPaper: 20-226, 2020). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University),

17. Byron G. Auguste, Bryan Hancock & Martha Laboissiere, The Economic Cost of the U.S. Education Gap, McKinsey & Co. (June 1, 2009),

18. Allison Atteberry & Andrew McEachin, School’s Out: The Role of Summers in Understanding Achievement Disparities, 20 Am. Educ. Rsch. J. 1 (2020),

19. Marguerite Roza & Katie Silberstein, Analysis: Pandemic-Fueled Financial Turbulence Is Hitting School Districts Across the Country. Here’s What to Watch For, The 74 (Aug. 17, 2020),

20. Marguerite Roza, Roza: Waiting for Congress to Bail out Schools Is a Risky Game of Chicken. Time for Districts to Come up with Plan B—and for States to Help, The 74 (May 4, 2020),

21. Daarel Burnette II & Madeline Will, Thousands of Educators Laid Off Already Due to COVID-19, and More Expected, Educ. Wk. (July 14, 2020),

22. Kilrabo Jackson, Cora Wigger & Heyu Xiong (2018). Do School Spending Cuts Matter? Evidence from the Great Depression (NBER Working Paper Series, Working Paper 24203, 2018),

23. The Evidence Project,

24. Letter from Educ. Researchers, How Schools Can Help Children Recover from COVID School Closures (Aug. 3, 2020),

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By V. Darleen Opfer

V. Darleen Opfer, PhD, is vice president and director of RAND Education and Labor and holds the Distinguished Chair in Education Policy at the RAND Corporation.