What Remote Learning Data Tells Us About the Effects of COVID-19

COVID-19 and remote learning have changed high school overnight. Here's what we know so far about how it's effected education.

By Dr. Lauren J Bierbaum

By sheer necessity, COVID-19 has thrust the nation’s public education system into a period of unprecedented innovation. This pandemic has spurred massive disruption, forcing students, teachers, and families to develop new ways of teaching and learning. Remote learning is now part of our lexicon, forecasting potentially long-term practices.

So what does that mean? How widely and well are schools around the country implementing remote learning? What strategies have schools used to manage the transition, in order to support teachers and students in making this shift? Are there strategies we’ve learned that we can use immediately in the months ahead?

As the school year comes to a close, stakeholders across public education systems are beginning to report data and tell their stories of remote learning. At XQ, we are starting to connect these dots. While we don’t yet have authoritative data on remote learning nationwide, we can begin to tell the story of this moment as systematic and anecdotal reporting comes to us from the field.

We know that many aspects of the transition to remote learning will defy easy quantification. The emotional impact of fear and social isolation invariably weigh heavily upon students reporting unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression. Many families are suffering from job losses and financial stress. Millions of students have lost access to healthy meals and productive learning spaces otherwise provided by schools. Thousands of family members and other trusted adults have fallen ill from this virus. These all represent data points that contribute to what will eventually become the overarching story of how schools and communities respond to COVID-19. But some data points, particularly those specific to remote learning, are illuminating now even in preliminary form.

Looking at the Differential Effects of Remote Learning

Adolescence is a time of rapid intellectual and emotional development. It is also a time during which caring, trusting relationships—with both adults and peers—are critical. This makes the transition to remote learning particularly fraught for high schoolers. And, in fact, only about half of the high schoolers recently surveyed by Common Sense Media reportparticipating in an online or virtual class since their schools closed. Common Sense also found that 42% of teens in the same survey report feeling more lonely than usual.

The impacts of these challenges are not equitably distributed across the student population either. Low-income students and students of color are facing the most daunting challenges. According to EdWeek’s recent survey of educators, up to one in three students from the poorest communities have not checked in with their schools via online learning platforms. Two-thirds of educators in high poverty districts fear their students will fall behind, while only 38% of educators in well-resourced districts report the same concern. Parents feel similarly, and those concerns are especially pronounced amongfamilies of color and low-income families. For instance, 81% of low-income parents are very concerned about when their students will return to school, and 61% worry not just about lost learning time, but about students’ lack of access to peers as well.

A Look at Remote Learning across the Nation

School systems everywhere are struggling to implement universal—and universally high-quality—remote learning experiences. Yet the preparedness within systems, and the metrics used to define success, vary across the country.

One month into school closures, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) reported that 12.5% of high schoolers in their district had not yet checked into their schools’ online platforms at all and that one-third of high schoolers—approximately 33%—were not participating in virtual learning experiences. Similarly, 94% of parents surveyed in the Los Angeles area felt more regular contact with their child’s teacher would be helpful, and 91% of parents felt the same way regarding access to school counselors. LAUSD’s transparency about their remote learning data—and their development of strategies to resolve the inequities they have uncovered—represent a bright spot in these turbulent days.

The Houston Independent School District (HISD) distributed more than 14,000 hot spots and set up a robust online portal. But the district’s own accounting, only 42% of students are accessing that portal. It is important to note that this statistic does not necessarily mean that 68% of students are not engaging with online learning. Some students—and teachers—are likely using other technology options to manage remote learning. Also, roughly 1 in 5 Houston students have requested to use paper packets rather than online learning opportunities. As HISD—and other systems across the US—continue to learn, share, and iterate, we will continue to capture emerging successes, promising practices, and the story of this wholesale transition to remote learning.

This story of transition to remote is developing in real-time. For the most part, we don’t actually know how well schools and districts are making the transition. Even when districts communicate information, we’ve found they use ill-defined metrics and often fail to align the degree to which education is delivered with the ways in which education is received. For example, Montgomery County, Maryland, created a set of online learning resources and experiences, but much of the work for high schoolers is asynchronous. Students are missing out on vital aspects of high school learning including direct instruction from master teachers as well as the dynamic, agile thinking required in class discussions and debates. Montgomery County is hardly alone—two months into school closures, the Center on Reinventing Public Education(CRPE) has found that 33% of the more than 80 districts they are tracking still have no defined expectations or standards for teachers regarding remote instruction.

These contexts have an immediate impact on the ability to engage and learn. And, merely standing up the system isn’t enough.


What We Need to Consider  

For remote learning to work, accessing devices and broadband is merely the entry point.

Once online, learning experiences need to be organized in ways that support cumulative learning, and students need to understand that organization. Otherwise, students may feel as though they are merely clicking through a series of unconnected activities. That’s why a cohesive learning management system and effective communications from teachers and mentors are so important to remote learning.

As we know, young people need an environment conducive to learning. That means they need space at home and quiet time to focus on school tasks. But it also means that their online environment matters, too. For students unfamiliar with video conferencing, or for those whose schools have had to cobble together learning experiences across different (and often difficult-to-navigate) platforms, the online environment can present its own barriers to learning.

It is also important to recognize that remote learning changes not only how we teach and learn, but how we assess our students’ work as well. Teaching and learning don’t look the same online as they do in person, so there’s no reason assessment should look the same, either. While EdWeek found that 76% of high school teachers were counting remote assignments toward students’ final grades, 62% of parents report a lack of information from schools and districts about policies for assessment, grading, and promotion/graduation.

And with all of these changes, students require a vast amount of support in order to succeed, which means the adults providing those supports also need professional development and learning opportunities of their own to bring this new remote learning regime to fruition.

Finally, students learn best within social contexts and relationships—not just because we’re all used to in-person school, but because brain science tells us that learning is a fundamentally social and contextual process. Without special care to maintain relationships between educators and students, and among students themselves, the chances of success in remote learning are bleak. But the maintenance of caring, trusting relationships—a core school design principle at XQ—can and does happen even in remote learning.

Stories of Remote Learning Success 

In fact, we see bright spots all across the US—including places such as Houston and Los Angeles—where schools, families, support organizations, and students themselves have found ways to make the best of current circumstances and optimize the remote learning experience.

In Miami-Dade County, schools have confirmed that nine out of ten students are participating in online learning. This is a credit to rapid mobilization by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and his team in the wake of COVID-19. But Miami-Dade also sees such remarkable uptake in remote learning because of advance planning before the pandemic. Miami-Dade had technology on hand and ready to deploy—105,000 devices have been distributed to students—minimizing the delay between closing schools and setting students up to learn from home.

We’ve heard from families that teachers are calling every single student—for some teachers, more than 150 calls each week—to spend a few moments with students on a regular basis. This consistency provides students structure, but also reinforces that they are still valued members of a school community, even when that community cannot come together in person. These teachers use this time to set expectations for the coming days, trouble-shoot academic and technology challenges, and bolster social-emotional wellness in students.

Remote learning makes it difficult to create and deliver meaningful learning experiences, but teachers across America are working tirelessly to fill that void. Teachers across the country have designed a set of capstone projects for use in remote learning environments. Members of the American Federation of Teachers have created standards-based materials in core academic subject areas, including arts. Learning frameworks to support students in completing these projects include accommodations for English language learners and students with disabilities. AFT has also created low-tech versions of the projects for students with limited technology access. Projects such as these keep meaningful, engaged learning at the core of the student experience, even when that experience has moved out of the school building and into remote settings.

Education partners with expertise in technology are sharing tools and learnings as well. InnovateEdu—a nonprofit dedicated to closing gaps in achievement and opportunity via the development of models and tools to enhance teaching and learning—has created a new open-source data extraction tool. The tool allows schools to gather, analyze, and act on data from Google Classroom. InnovateEdu has not only made the tool available for free but is also providing training and technical assistance on how to use it to any interested school or district. Similarly, LearnPlatform has a new report about student access to and engagement in remote learning opportunities. While LearnPlatform has found that low-income students and students of color have lower engagement with online learning overall, this effect is attributable to limitations of access. In low-income areas where students have access to technology and the internet, student engagement is higher than expected. In much the same way that human-centered technology use can amplify learning in classrooms, technology can support learning at home as well, but only if students actually have and can use that technology.

Finally, while 58% of parents in one survey report that managing their children’s schooling at home was a source of stress and anxiety, 4 out of 5 parents—80%— also report deeper respect for teachers. By working together, teachers and families—even families with limited resources or adults working outside the home—can find ways to support students. In fact, networks and partnerships among schools, community organizations, and families have coalesced in communities across the country to make sure that high schoolers have what they need to move forward.

At XQ, we believe in the power of communities to rethink high school so that every student graduates ready to succeed in life. COVID-19 has required every community to rethink in real-time. The story of this pandemic—and its impact on high schools across the US —has not yet been written. But we know students, families, educators, and communities everywhere are working to create rigorous learning experiences, maintain relationships, and support a culture of student growth and positive development without setting foot in a physical classroom.

As we hear more from the field—stories, anecdotes, and data—we will continue sharing what we’ve learned. In the meantime, please share your thoughts and your experiences on the Rethink Together Forum, and stay safe, healthy, and engaged.

Are you an educator or policymaker thinking about the future of education? Do you have ideas about what that future can be? Send an email to [email protected].