Why online learning will only grow post-COVID, despite challenges

Internet and technology access ranked as greatest needs in underserved districts
By: | January 4, 2021
Disparities in tech access, social-emotional learning and insufficient funding to cover staff were top education priorities listed by district leaders in a year-end survey. (GettyImages/Sally Anscombe)Disparities in tech access, social-emotional learning and insufficient funding to cover staff were top education priorities listed by district leaders in a year-end survey. (GettyImages/Sally Anscombe)

Student and parent demand will drive an expansion of online learning as U.S. public schools recover from COVID-19, according to a survey.

About two in 10 U.S. school districts have created, plan to create or are considering creating virtual schools after the end of the pandemic, according to the study by the RAND Corporation studya nonprofit research organization.

District leaders surveyed said online learning was the innovative practice most likely to persist even as students and teachers return to classrooms, the survey found.

However, administrators remained highly concerned about students’ unequal opportunities to learn during COVID-19.


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In districts where at least half the students are Black or Hispanic—or at least 50% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—leaders ranked internet and technology access as the greatest needs.

But student mental health and high-quality instructional resources were rated as the top needs by leaders of the remaining districts.

“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 RAND’s director of the Pre-K to 12 educational systems program.

“But just as reopening plans differ based on local approaches to both schooling and the pandemic,” Schwartz continued, “district leaders’ opinions differed on the degree to which they prioritized these needs and concerns.”

Alongside the survey, the University of Washington, Bothell’s Center on Reinventing Public Education developed case studies of six districts’to online learning approaches during COVID-19.

Finally, district leaders said the U.S. Department of Education had the second-least amount of influence on their COVID-19 plans. State and local health departments had the most.


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