By Rachel Phillips and Bennett Sherry, OER Project Team
The 2020/21 school year was bad. It was chaotic, unpredictable, scary, exhausting, shocking, and epically frustrating. But there were also some unexpected silver linings: 2020/21 saw amazing advancements in science, a record number of animal adoptions, and the bucking of national trends by OER Project teachers who provided quality instruction resulting in impressive student learning (see the Summary of OER Project Research SY2020/21).
Despite some bright spots, it was a grim year that now has us focused on how we can best recover and prepare for new challenges. This is the first year that incoming cohorts will begin the year after a full year of pandemic learning. The topic of learning loss in the 2020/21 school year as compared to prior years has been a hot topic lately. But we think learning loss is a bit of a misnomer. Students didn’t necessarily forget what they’d already learned, but they did miss new opportunities to learn due to the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic in general, virtual schooling specifically, and the exacerbation of already-existing inequities due to both those realities. And the impacts of the pandemic and virtual learning were felt beyond academics. A paper published by Duckworth and colleagues reported that of the more than 6,500 students surveyed, those who attended school remotely suffered socially, emotionally, and academically.
To better understand the trials of the past year and what might lie ahead, we spent some time digging into the latest research. We share four of our key findings below.
Finding 1: Students were chronically absent from virtual school, and dropout rates are on the rise, particularly for Black and low-income students.
Students attending low-income schools were much more likely to be absent or seen as truant from school in the 2020/21 school year. An EdWeek survey of over 2,600 teachers and school district leaders found huge disparities between the nation’s richest and poorest schools, particularly in basic technology availability, access to live remote instruction, and absenteeism. Notably, the poorer the students, the less likely they were to attend school. This may be due to factors such as unavailability of technology or sufficient bandwidth, lack of a quiet place to work, and an absence of adult supervision. Across the board, virtual learning during the pandemic has created new and also exacerbated old inequities in academic performance.
Finding 2: Missed learning, lack of quality instruction, and lower achievement in virtual learning are significantly worse for low-income students; Black, Hispanic, and ELL students; and students with disabilities.
Data suggests that virtual schools disproportionally disadvantage Black, Hispanic, ELL, rural, and disabled students, who, on average, have less technology and broadband access than their white and higher-income peers. Students of color and low-income students were also less likely to receive quality remote instruction compared to their white peers, and low-income students were not at all likely to receive even average instruction.
Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be learning remotely (during COVID-19) and have less access to technology and infrastructure. A RAND Corporation report found that students across grade levels were more likely to remain in fully virtual learning during spring 2021 if they were students of color or were from low-income households. The result was less instructional time, less achievement, and higher absenteeism. Students on average were projected to miss five to nine months of learning by the end of June 2021, while students of color were projected to be six to twelve months behind, indicating a widening of the already large achievement gap.
Finding 3: During the pandemic, student well-being declined, in part because of virtual schooling.
A lack of face-to-face interaction with the instructor, slower response times, and the absence of traditional classroom socialization have all contributed to declines in student well-being in addition to academic outcomes. The CDC reported on the devastating effect this has had on student mental health: “During 2020, the proportion of mental health-related emergency department (ED) visits among adolescents aged 12–17 years increased 31% compared with that during 2019…Among adolescents aged 12–17 years, mean weekly number of ED visits for suspected suicide attempts were 39.1% higher during winter 2021 than during the corresponding periods in 2019...and suspected suicide attempts were 50.6% higher among females compared with the same period in 2019.” Issues of student well-being, combined with academic stressors are producing an increasingly frustrating environment for educators.
Finding 4: Teaching during the pandemic has made teachers more likely to want to leave the profession.
Dire warnings of an unprecedented teacher exodus have not materialized. National data on teacher retention is not yet available, and rates vary from region to region. Early numbers show that in some states retention levels are up. This may be due to teachers being reluctant to leave their jobs during a period of economic uncertainty. While teachers are not yet retiring or leaving the profession in high numbers, more are considering leaving. The EdWeek Research Center surveyed a nationally representative sample of about 700 teachers and 300 school leaders online in March 2021. When asked about the likelihood that they’ll leave teaching in the next two years, 54% of teachers said they are “somewhat” or “very likely” to do so. That’s compared to just 34% of teachers who said they would have answered that question with “somewhat” or “very likely” if they’d been asked in the fall of 2019 (before the pandemic began). Additionally, recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the number teaching positions around the country is being reduced, which might obscure attrition numbers.
You’re not alone
Look, we know you don’t need us to tell you how hard last school year was. But we’re hoping that these numbers help validate your frustrations and fears going into another year of pandemic teaching. You’re not imagining things—it is way harder to teach and learn right now. But you’re not alone. In the OER Project Community, you are part of a community of teachers who are dealing with many of the same frustrations you face. Over the last 18 months, OER Project teachers have been supporting each other and sharing ideas for addressing new challenges in virtual, hybrid, and in-person teaching. One of our most popular community posts of all time, Roll Call, was started by a teacher who was checking in on the well-being of her OER colleagues. We know this school year will be hard. Incoming cohorts are dealing with the baggage of a full year of missed learning. So, let’s check in. What are your plans to address this challenge? What do you need help with? Your fellow teachers (and the OER Project) want to hear about your strategies, your activities, and your frustrations.
 Duckworth, A. L., Kautz, T., Defnet, A., Satlof-Bedrick, E., Talamas, S., Lira, B., & Steinberg, L. (2021). “Students Attending School Remotely Suffer Socially, Emotionally, and Academically.” Educational Researcher. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X211031551.
 Herold, B. “The Disparities in Remote Learning Under Coronavirus (in Charts).” EducationWeek. April 10, 2020. https://www.edweek.org/technology/the-disparities-in-remote-learning-under-coronavirus-in-charts/2020/04.
Adnan, M., Anwar, K. “Online Learning amid the COVID-19 Pandemic: Students’ Perspectives.” Journal of Pedagogical Sociology and Psychology, Volume 2, Issue I, 2000. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED606496.
About the authors: Rachel Phillips, PhD, is a learning scientist who leads research and evaluation efforts for the OER Project, as well as develops curriculum for their courses. She is elementary certified, has taught in K-12 schools, and currently serves as an adjunct professor for graduate courses in American University's School of Education. Rachel was formerly Director of Research and Evaluation at Code.org, faculty at the University of Washington, and program director for National Science Foundation-funded research. Her work focuses on the intersections of learning sciences and equity in formal educational spaces.
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in history from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century. He is one of the historians working on the OER Project courses.
Cover image: School children in face masks raising hands at classroom desks. © Malte Mueller / Getty Images.