A survey finds that district leaders hope to offer virtual learning for the long haul, and shows they're focused on inequities in learning opportunities

Virtual learning will stick around after COVID fades

A survey finds that district leaders hope to offer virtual learning for the long haul, and shows they're focused on inequities in learning opportunities

About two in 10 U.S. school districts have already adopted, plan to adopt or are considering adopting virtual learning after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

The survey of district leaders indicates that virtual learning was the innovative practice that most district leaders anticipated would continue, citing both student and parent demand for continuing various forms of online instruction.

District leaders who mentioned plans to continue offer virtual learning and instruction after the COVID-19 pandemic has abated said they want to do so to offer students more flexibility, meet parent or student demand, meet the diversity of students’ needs, and maintain student enrollment.

District leaders were united in their concerns about students’ unequal opportunities to learn during COVID-19, which was among their top-rated challenges for the 2020-2021 school year.

However, in districts where at least 50 percent of students are Black or Hispanic/Latino or at least 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch rate, leaders also continued to rank fundamentals like internet and technology access as greatest needs. In contrast, leaders of the remaining districts more heavily emphasized student mental health and high-quality instructional resources rate as greatest needs.

“We found three common concerns: disparities in students’ opportunities to learn, students’ social and emotional learning needs, and insufficient funding to cover staff,” said Heather Schwartz, lead author of the report and director of the Pre-K to 12 educational systems program at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “But just as reopening plans differ based on local approaches to both schooling and the pandemic, district leaders’ opinions differed on the degree to which they prioritized these needs and concerns.”

Professional development needs are also a priority, with a majority of surveyed leaders (at least 68 percent) saying they have moderate or great needs in six professional development categories covered in the survey.

“The top-ranked professional development need among the six topics about which we asked was addressing students’ social and emotional well-being,” according to the report. “Nonfocus district leaders ranked this professional development need especially high, with 37 percent of nonfocus leaders deeming this professional development topic a great need.”

Addressing unfinished learning related to COVID-19 is another big professional development need, too.

RAND fielded the survey to the new American School District Panel (ASDP) September through November 2020. The ASDP is the first-of-its-kind nationally representative, longitudinal panel of school districts across the United States, providing opportunities for district and charter management organization leaders to inform policy and practice. It is the newest member of the American Educator Panels (AEP), which includes two other standing panels of educators: the American Teacher Panel and the American School Leader Panel.

RAND, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, Chiefs for Change, and Kitamba partnered to develop and deploy the ASDP. The Center on Reinventing Public Education developed case studies of six districts’ approaches to remote learning during COVID-19.

The other authors of “Remote Learning Is Here to Stay: Results from the First American School District Panel Survey” are David M. Grant, Melissa Diliberti, Gerald P. Hunter and Claude Messan Setodji.

Material from a press release was used in this report.

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Laura Ascione
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