New Research: Pandemic Learning Experiences and Best Practices

A new federal report provides insight into the lived experiences of teachers and students during the COVID-19 pandemic and offers policy considerations in how to best support students’ learning and development during emergencies.

young girl in front of a laptop computerA newly published study from the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) reporting to several congressional committees offers perspective on teaching and learning during the pandemic and provides insight for future policy decisions about virtual learning.

The GAO report, released on May 17, is the first in series analyzing the impact of the pandemic on K-12 education. It gathered data from a nationally representative teacher survey and virtual meetings with K-12 stakeholders.

Here’s what GAO found:

  • Nationwide, about 25% of teachers solely provided in-person instruction during the 2020-2021 school year, while 75% did so virtually or in a hybrid situation.

  • Teachers cited a variety of challenges to successful virtual learning, including students’ lack of reliable internet, difficulty using technology, and students being distracted/busy providing assistance to siblings or younger students.

  • Live, virtual instruction and the use of technology apps and platforms were most helpful in supporting students’ academic progress during the pandemic.

  • Almost all teachers regularly used live instruction, either virtually (synchronous) or in person, and that it helped at least half of their students make academic progress, with those offering some in-person instruction seeing significantly more progress. On the other hand, asynchronous teaching, or pre-recorded lessons, was less helpful.

  • Using technology and apps for subject learning helped improved academic progress and using them to submit work virtually even more so.

Additionally, the report found that the following was also helpful in supporting students during the pandemic:

  • Building relationships or social-emotional connections with students
  • Holding office hours or one-on-one check-ins; being available to answer questions
  • Providing frequent feedback to students on work
  • Setting expectations and standards
  • Having flexibility—e.g., with deadlines or assignment types
  • Providing in-person instruction when possible
  • Involving parents or guardians
  • Having small groups or class sizes
  • After-school or weekend tutoring
  • One-on-one or small group meetings with counselors
  • Team building/“get-to-know-you” activities
  • Extended school day or flexible school day (e.g., allowing students to learn during times other than the typical school day hours)
  • Discussing social/emotional needs with parents or guardians
  • Small group work over devices (either remote or in person)

The future of virtual learning

The GAO’s findings should be considered by policymakers, especially when considering best practices for virtual learning. Interestingly, during the 2022 legislative session, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation on the topic. The bill’s original form included guidance on pre-recorded instruction, which was ultimately amended out of the bill. If the GAO’s findings stand, Maryland’s students would be more successful with real-time teaching, virtual or in-person.

One thing is for sure — we will continue to see movement around virtual learning and best practices as local boards of education and the state work to recover from the pandemic and related learning loss. This GAO report and those forthcoming can serve as a resource for those doing so.

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