In spring of 2020, schools in the United States and across the globe were forced by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to shift from a familiar (school-based, face-to-face) learning environment to remote learning in a home setting. This sudden and unsettling shift upended well-established routines, norms, expectations, and learning environments for the remainder of the school year. To identify how the schools in its network were coping with the changed circumstances brought on by the pandemic, Cognia conducted three separate surveys—of students, teachers, and parents—on the academic, personal, and emotional impact on each of these groups. These surveys, conducted from late April through June 2020, provide information that can help schools address the challenges these groups face in this new school year.

The study was conducted by Cognia’s Innovation Lab; established in 2019, the Innovation Lab is an incubator of new initiatives, tools, and services for Cognia. The group conducts surveys on crucial and timely issues in education to inform continuous improvement for the 36,000 schools and districts from the U.S. and more than 80 countries in Cognia’s network. The survey provides some of the first evidence available on what is happening during the transition to online learning that schools will need to address again this year.

More Work, Less Rigor

With online learning, teachers have been quite busy generating new assignments, and students busy completing them. But by all accounts, too much of this is not as challenging as it could be. The lack of rigor is leaving parents and students feeling anxious about whether students are prepared to advance into new grades or be ready for future work and learning over the long haul.

Eight in 10 students who responded to their survey reported having more work to do in a remote setting than in their previous classrooms. More than two-thirds of students (67%), six in ten parents (60%), and almost all teachers (94%) said that assignments were either “new and easy” or “something already learned.” Teachers spent more time generating new, generally easy assignments than creating more rigorous instruction online. Teachers typically focused on preparing instructional activities and assignments for students in remote learning structures but those activities often lacked rigor.

Perhaps as a result of the perceived lack of rigor, the majority of parents (57%) reported they are worried or sometimes worried about student preparation moving forward. More than 6 in 10 students (61%) said that they were worried about not being prepared for school the next year most days or some days. High school (67%) and middle school students (63%) were far more likely to say they were worried than students in elementary school (54%).

Burden on Students, Parents and Teachers

The report also quantifies the difficulties that students, parents, and teachers experienced in teaching and learning as a result of COVID-19. Students and parents say that young people felt lonely, missed their friends, and also were cut off from Meanwhile, four in 10 parents found that helping their children at home was more difficult than they expected—particularly for parents of younger students who relied on them for the most help. Teachers had to adapt to a whole new way of working, learn new approaches to instruction, and be available to students and parents, as well as be the key schooling support for parents and students.

 Outpouring of Support

The study indicates extensive support by parents and students for what teachers accomplished and, by teachers, for the support they have received from principals and school leaders.

More than 9 in 10 students (93%) said that their teachers checked on them to make sure they had everything they needed to learn (53% most of the time, 40% some of the time). Teachers noted that they checked on their students’ progress regularly—daily (57%), several times a week (31%), or weekly (13%). Meanwhile, nearly all parents and students agreed that teachers cared about their child(ren) while students were learning remotely from home. Virtually all parents (97%) said that teachers and school leaders made themselves available or sometimes made themselves available for conversations when it was convenient for families. Teachers also noted that families were responsive to their communications (48% most of the time, 39% sometimes).

Lack of Regular Routines. More than four in 10 parents (44%) reported their child(ren) did not have consistent learning routines. These routines—the regular classroom procedures (from how teachers greet students, to time spent setting expectations, to well-rehearsed group learning practices)—help maintain order, reduce student anxiety, and encourage students to remain motivated, engaged, and focused on learning.

Burden on Parents/Guardians. Many parents (38 percent) found that helping children was harder than expected. When needing support with assignments, elementary students reported first seeking help from someone at home (74%), then from a teacher (20%) or from friends (6%). On average, high school students reported first seeking help from a friend (40%), then from online resources (3%), my teacher (15%), or someone at home (14%). In fact, elementary students were almost twice as likely to lean on someone at home for support with their assignments than other students (43% vs. 23%  overall)and high school students were about four times less likely to look for support at home than students on average (6% vs. 23% overall). Similarly, more high school students (54%) than elementary (29%) and middle (45%) school students preferred learning independently.

Toll on Teachers. About 42 percent of teachers surveyed said that teaching remotely was harder than expected and 98 percent agreed that they had to learn new skills (77 percent agree, 21 percent somewhat agree.) While teachers were working to build connections with students and families, teachers themselves reported feeling disconnected from the workplace. Almost all teachers indicated they missed their school life (99%), felt disconnected from colleagues (90%), and missed their students’ participation in school events (96%).

Technology Gap. Ten percent of students reported having no access or only some access to the technology they needed to complete assignments—high-speed internet connectivity and electronic devices, such as laptops or mobile hotspots. That any students lack technology access is unacceptable—a structural inequity that results in about three students in a classroom of 30 without equal access to equitable educational opportunities.

Moving Forward

The challenges identified by the survey provide a context for setting priorities in the second year of online learning.

Teachers require opportunities for collaboration to model changes in instructional design, curate remote learning materials, and change their focus from generating assignments to facilitating individual and group learning online. One of the first steps required is providing support for teachers to explore new ways of organizing learning time that offers more quality contact with individual students.

Schools can build on the goodwill and close connections between teachers, parents, and students by focusing more on the social and emotional well-being of students, parents, and teachers, supporting collaborative work, and continuing to engage students and parents in the learning process.

The resource equity challenges that schools face are complicated by lack of technology infrastructure and a tight budget environment. Providing students with access to technology is a short-term imperative. In the long run, guaranteeing adequate resources for the most underserved students will be equally challenging and—given that such students are daily falling further behind—will be the most important priority for school leaders.

For a copy of the report, Upended Learning: Key Findings on the Impact of Online Schooling visit our website.  For more on what schools can do, see the companion article, Lessons from Online Schools: Insights Into What Makes for Effective Transitions to Remote Learning.

Private: Mark A. Elgart, Ed.D.
Dr. Mark A. Elgart has served as president and CEO of Cognia since 2002. Under his leadership Cognia was established, following the merger of AdvancED and Measured Progress, to bridge the gap between school evaluation and student assessment.  Cognia serves as the trusted partner with over 36,000 institutions in 85 countries to advance learning for 25 million students.  Elgart has a long, distinguished career of 40 years as an educational leader including time as a math and physics teacher, school principal, and chief executive leading a global, education non-profit.  He is annually recognized, both locally and internationally, as an influential leader in education due to his impact on education policy and the work of schools.  He is an internationally recognized speaker on education and frequent author on educational issues including recent whitepapers on federal policy and school improvement.  In education, Elgart is widely viewed as the foremost authority on school improvement and education quality.  Elgart earned a bachelor’s  in Mathematics from Springfield College, a master’s in Educational Administration from Westfield State College, and Doctorate in Education in Leadership in Schooling from the University of Massachusetts.
Vicki Denmark, Ph.D.
Dr. Vicki Denmark previously served as the Chief Architect at Cognia. Dr. Denmark oversaw the design and development of solutions and resources for educational institutions to improve organizationally and most importantly, for students. She served as the subject matter expert for products, content, and solutions and identifies new opportunities that lead to innovative solutions for institutions. She holds a Ph.D. in Educational Policy Studies from Georgia State University.