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What was it like learning during the pandemic? Students have spoken.

We conducted an initial survey of high school students in late March of 2020, where students reported a broad range of experiences related to the abrupt shift to learning from home. Unfortunately, we found that students who were already part of populations traditionally underserved in education were often facing additional challenges that only exacerbated preexisting inequities.

In June, we followed up with the students originally surveyed in March to better understand students’ experiences as the COVID-19 pandemic wore on. We asked the March students again about what they were experiencing, and then asked a new group of students who had registered to take the October ACT test about their experiences as of that month. Reports on these two surveys, addressing online learning and basic needs and mental health supports and academic preparedness, were recently released.

We hope that these reports offer policymakers, educators, and parents insight into students’ perceptions of the effect the pandemic has had on their learning and other needs.

What the research tells us


Students who were asked about their online learning experiences in June 2020 reported large gaps between what they needed to be successful and what they received. In particular, noticeable gaps emerged in these categories: receiving clear and understandable materials (66% received versus 90% needed); a manageable number of assignments (50% received versus 81% needed); and timely responses to questions (63% received versus 77% needed). A quarter of students reported being unable to complete schoolwork because of unreliable internet, at least sometimes.

The consequences of these barriers to effective learning were seen in our October survey. More than 80% of students were concerned that spring 2020 school closures had negatively affected their academic preparedness for the current school year, and a similar percentage were concerned that their college preparedness had been negatively affected. More than half of students were concerned about being prepared in math this school year, but only a quarter were concerned about being prepared in English/language arts.

Mental health

In June 2020, half of students reported that their school had communicated the availability of mental health supports—though only 41% of students in rural areas had received such communications. Two thirds of students shared that someone at school had reached out to see how they were doing, with almost three quarters of Black students reporting such outreach.

However, when a different group of students was asked in October 2020, only 50% of students reported that an adult at their school had reached out to ask how they were doing since the start of the school year, with students learning in a hybrid model (i.e., both at-home and in-school learning) less likely than students learning only in person to say that someone had reached out. A higher percentage of students (66%) said there was an adult at their school they felt comfortable contacting, but this number was lower for students learning virtually and students of color. Students learning in person were more likely to agree (71%) that their school could effectively help students experiencing mental health issues. It is possible that these differences between surveys emerged, at least in part, from increasing stress due to the additional months spent under pandemic conditions.

What now?

Both reports offer recommendations to policymakers and educators regarding how to best support students’ self-reported academic and social and emotional/mental health needs, particularly around providing mental health resources to students and their families. (It is also important to note that while the mental health support needs of students are substantial, support must also be provided for educators.) Some of these recommendations are listed below, though we encourage you to read the reports for more detail.

Recommendations for online learning and basic needs:
  • Support teachers in maintaining effective communication with students.
  • Ensure all students have reliable internet and devices.
  • Ensure all students have access to healthy food.
Recommendations for mental health and academic preparedness:

  • Ensure that schools have the resources to offer mental health supports and that students are proactively informed of these resources.
  • Provide parents with resources to support the mental health of their children.
  • Actively recruit counselors, teachers, and other staff members of color.

These insights may be used to aid summer school planning and preparations for the 2021-22 school year. We plan to release further research on the effects of COVID-19 in the months ahead.

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