Educational Research for COVID-19 Response


These resources highlight research syntheses and recommendations about the effectiveness of potential actions for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The focus is on sources which review the broader literature rather than individual studies; however, in the section characterizing current conditions, there are some working papers which have not yet been peer-reviewed. Note that this does not summarize what various educational agencies are currently doing, since that is both fast-changing and vast in scope, and since it is not always clear what the research basis may be that underpins those decisions.

Major sources

Characterizing current conditions

Enrollment, attendance, and engagement

  • Missing in the Margins 2021: Revisiting the COVID-19 Attendance Crisis. (Bellwether; 2021 Oct)
    • In public PK-12 schools, enrollment decreased by 2.7% (>1.3m students) from 2018-19 to 2020-21, with most of the drops in elementary grades, especially kindergarten. Although reporting on attendance data from 2020-21 is sparse, available data point to overall decreases in attendance, with more absenteeism among English learners, low-income students, Black or Hispanic students, students with disabilities, and younger students. Engagement data suggest decreases in participation in online coursework and time spent on learning activities.
  • The Revealed Preferences for School Reopening: Evidence from Public-School Disenrollment. (CEPA; 2021 Aug)
    • While U.S. K-12 public school enrollment typically increases by a fraction of a percentage point each year, it fell by 2% in Fall 2020 (a loss of ~1.1 mil students). Compared to in-person instruction, offering remote-only instruction as of Aug / Sep 2020 reduced enrollment by 1.1% overall and by 3-4% in kindergarten. These results suggest long-term negative fiscal consequences if disenrolled students do not return.
  • Student Attendance and Enrollment Loss in 2020–21. (AIR; 2021 June)
    • According to a survey completed by a representative sample of 565 districts in April 2021, enrollment and attendance rates dropped in 2020-2021, with both rates being higher in districts providing primarily in-person instruction. Enrollment was greater in higher-achieving districts, while attendance was higher in low-poverty districts and districts serving mostly White students. Districts providing remote instruction monitored attendance using teacher reports (94%), learning management systems (89%), and/or homework completion (84%).

Measuring unfinished learning

  • Pandemic Schooling Mode and Student Test Scores: Evidence from US States. (NBER; 2021 Nov)
    • State standardized test score data from Spring 2021 across 12 states show overall declines in pass rates compared to prior years (by 14.2% in math and by 6.3% in English). The effect of shifting from 0% to 100% in-person learning over the school year would reduce those drops by 10.1% in math and by 3.7% in English.
  • Changing Patterns of Growth in Oral Reading Fluency During the COVID-19 Pandemic. (PACE; 2021 Mar)
    • Students’ oral reading fluency (gr2-3) is approximately 30 percent behind expectations. Students at lower-achieving schools are falling farther behind, with 10% of students not assessed this fall.
  • Learning during COVID-19: Initial findings on students' reading and math achievement and growth  (NWEA; 2020 Nov)
    • Students (gr3-8) performed similarly in reading but lower in math. Decreases were greater for younger grades and for Hispanic and Black students. Overall, testing rates were 10% lower than in past years. 
  • Fall 2019 to Fall 2020 MAP Growth attrition analysis (NWEA; 2020 Nov)
    • Students who were assessed in 2019 but not in 2020 were more likely to be racial minorities (Black, Hispanic, Asian); among the lowest 30% of scorers in 2019; or attending a district with higher percentages of students who were racial minorities, socioeconomically disadvantaged, classified as English learners, or receiving special education services. The impact of the pandemic is thus likely to be underestimated in analyses based on these assessments.


  • School District Staffing Challenges in a Rapidly Recovering Economy. (CEDR; 2021 fall).
    • ​​​​​​​An analysis of school district job postings across Washington state in October 2021 revealed the most openings for paraeducators, about twice as many as for teachers. Postings per student are especially high for paraeducators in high-poverty districts. Among teachers, the most openings were for substitutes, then special education teachers. Vacancy rates, which adjust for student enrollment and the number of teacher candidates credentialed by the state in a given category, reveal far higher needs in high-poverty districts, especially for bilingual and special education teachers.
  • Stress Topped the Reasons Why Public School Teachers Quit, Even Before COVID-19. (RAND; 2021 Feb).
    • According to a nationwide survey of former public school teachers in December 2020, nearly half of those who left after March 2020 and before retirement cited doing so because of the pandemic. Compared to pre-pandemic, Black teachers were overrepresented among teacher leavers during the pandemic, while teachers with less experience (≤3 years) were underrepresented. Stress was the most common reason for leaving early, almost twice as common as insufficient pay. More flexibility was the most common attribute attracting teacher-leavers to their new job.

District operations

  • Urban and Rural Districts Showed a Strong Divide During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Results from the Second American School District Panel Survey. (RAND; 2021)
    • A survey completed by 434 district leaders revealed that in February 2021, only 17% of urban districts were offering fully in-person instruction, compared to 42% of rural districts. Most districts offering any remote instruction defined attendance as a once-per-day check-in. Half of districts shortened school time, especially those offering remote instruction. The majority of districts offered tutoring and increased socioemotional supports. Districts spent the same or more in 2020-2021 than in 2019-2020, but the majority cut certain expenses (such as building, operations, maintenance, transportation, and supplies) to cover pandemic-related costs.

Recommended practices and strategies

General guidance

  • U.S. Dept. of Education COVID-19 Handbooks 
  • National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine
    • Reopening K-12 Schools during the COVID-19 Pandemic (2020 Jul).
      • Decision to reopen. Precautions for reopening. Partnerships between school districts and public health officials. Access to public health expertise. Decision-making coalitions. Equity in reopening. Addressing financial burdens. High-priority mitigation strategies. Urgent research.

Digital learning

Assessment and differentiation

Addressing unfinished learning

  • Overall
    • Broad-based academic supports for all students. (ERR; 2020 Jul)
      • In-person instruction is particularly important for early elementary students. Provide targeted support strategies for families and students. Designate time for teacher collaboration to maximize use of instructional time.
      • Large-scale standardized testing is unlikely to be useful for teachers’ instructional planning. Remediation programs should not replace regular instruction.
    • What Can Be Done to Address Learning Losses Due to School Closures? (ANS; 2020 Jun)
      • Summer programs. Guidance for home-based reading. Online classes with specific expectations to demonstrate active participation.
    • School practices to address student learning loss. (ERR; 2020 Jun)
      • Promising strategies: High-dosage tutoring. Extended learning time. Systems for detecting and responding to early warning signs with strong norms and routines.
      • Avoid: Compressed content, grade retention, enhanced response to intervention (especially if it replaces core instruction).
  • Targeted interventions
  • Tutoring
    • Learning Recovery: How to Develop and Implement Effective Tutoring Programs. (CCN resource)
    • Equalizing Access to Quality and High-Impact Tutoring. (ERR).
      • Framework, relevant research, policy considerations. Toolkit, tutoring database.
    • Accelerating Student Learning with High-Dosage Tutoring. (ERR; 2021 Feb)
      • Tutoring is most effective at high dosage (i.e., 3+ sessions per week), in small groups (i.e., up to 3-4 students), and during the school day (compared to after-school or summer programs).
      • Tutors need adequate training and ongoing support, high-quality instructional materials aligned with classroom content, and consistency to build positive relationships with students. Ongoing informal assessments allow tutors to better tailor instruction to individual needs.
      • The benefits of tutoring are clearest in reading for early grades (K-2) and in math for older students.
      • Prioritization may be need-driven (e.g., targeting students below particular thresholds), curriculum-driven (e.g., for critical milestones such as 1st-grade literacy), or universal (to reduce stigma).
    • The Effectiveness of Volunteer Tutoring Programs: A Systematic Review. (CAMP; 2006 Jun)
      • Tutoring “can positively influence important reading and language sub-skills for young students” (~1/3 SD). “Highly structured programs had a significant advantage over programs with low structure on the global reading outcome.”
  • Extended learning opportunities
    • Academies for Learning Advancement: Research and Practitioner Perspectives. (CCN resource)
    • Investing in Successful Summer Programs: A Review of Evidence Under the Every Student Succeeds Act. (RAND, 2019).
      • Many types of summer programs were effective in addressing students’ needs. However, more evidence was “promising” rather than “strong”, and few programs met all measured goals. More evidence exists for programs that target reading achievement than for other outcomes. 
      • When selecting or developing programs, consider the setting and targeted population. Align expectations for breadth of content addressed to program length. Targeted programming may create stronger benefits.
    • Getting to Work on Summer Learning Recommended Practices for Success, 2nd Ed. (RAND; 2018)
      • Planning: Commit in the fall; plan in January, designating director with at least 0.5FTE. Plan both academics and enrichment.
      • Teacher selection: Hire highly effective teachers by content area and grade level. Offer professional development on summer curricula, minimizing lost instructional time, and checking for student understanding.
      • Scheduling: Include 25+ hrs of math and 34+ hrs of language arts instruction. Plan transition times to minimize lost instructional time.
      • Attendance: Establish firm enrollment deadline and clear attendance policy. Track no-shows and daily attendance.
      • Curriculum & instruction: Anchor program in curricula that align with school-year standards and student needs. Observe and provide feedback on curriculum implementation. Select model for providing enrichment activities.
      • Climate: Train staff on importance of positive adult engagement throughout the day. Ensure that site leaders observe in and out of class.
      • Sustainability: Hire staff to meet ratios based on projected daily attendance. Weigh cost-efficiencies against program quality.
    • Impacts of After‐School Programs on Student Outcomes. (CAMP; 2006 May)
      • Limited rigorous evaluations of after-school programs, with primarily null findings. Meta-analyses of five high-quality studies showed that programs had no effect on reading scores, but may have a small impact on raising grades.



Student engagement, socioemotional learning, and school climate

  • Supporting Child and Student Social, Emotional, Behavioral, and Mental Health Needs. (US DOE; 2021 Oct)
    • Prioritize wellness. Enhance mental health literacy and reduce barriers to access. Implement continuum of evidence-based prevention practices. Establish integrated framework of support for all. Leverage policy and funding. Use data for decision-making to promote equitable implementation.
  • Evidence-Based Practices for Assessing Students' Social and Emotional Well-Being. (ERR; 2021 Feb)
    • Consider: Comprehensive system with validated instruments for monitoring student well-being, supplemented with student surveys for understanding mindsets and other unobservable characteristics, as part of a larger student support strategy. Screeners and monitoring strategies can help identify and refer students for targeted support by specialists or connect them to resources.
    • Avoid: Survey questions which may re-traumatize, stigmatize, or marginalize students. Poor survey design (e.g., double-barreled questions, double negatives, questions that are difficult for younger students to interpret).
  • Research-Based Strategies for Effective Remote Learning: Student Engagement. (REL Appalachia; 2020 Dec)
  • Ways to Promote Children's Resilience to the COVID-19 Pandemic. (ChildTrends; 2020 Apr)
    • Protective factors: Sensitive, responsive caregiving. Meeting basic needs. Emotional support for children. Support for caregiver well-being. Social connectedness.  
  • Bringing evidence-based decision-making to school safety. (ERR; 2020 Sep)
    • Consider: School-wide mental health trauma programs built around tiered interventions. SEL lessons incorporated into academic classes; small-group counseling; individual check-ins with caring adults. Mechanisms for student input on school rules and classroom processes. Comprehensive, disaggregated, validated school climate data. Train staff to recognize and respond to cues without stereotyping students. Connect with community mental health professionals.

Focal populations

Family engagement / At-home supports

Staff supports

  • Digital Professional Learning for K-12 Teachers: Literature Review and Analysis (WestEd; 2020 Dec)
    • Well-designed virtual communities of practice support implementation. Customization (software features, personalized goal-setting, modes for content delivery and assessment) can encourage more active engagement. Learning may be extended through asynchronous access to archived resources, collaboration with colleagues, continuous improvement cycles, and monitoring student progress. Strong and seamless facilitation helps; digital access opens up possibilities for virtual coaches and outside experts, although local facilitators can offer immediate feedback and contextual knowledge. Layer multiple modalities, with job-embedded learning opportunities and opportunities for social interaction.
  • Remote Professional Development: Rapid Evidence Assessment. (2020 Sep)
    • 1-pg summary. Remote coaching, mentoring, and expert support can be effective alone or to complement PD programs. Video is particularly effective for enabling teachers to reflect on teaching practice, if paired with other resources (e.g., viewing guides, coaching conversations). More interactive content increases time on task and completion rates. Collegial collaboration may improve outcomes through reflective practice and collective problem-solving. Supportive school conditions include leader support, protected time, and effective technology platforms and training.
  • District systems to support principal leadership. (ERR; 2020 Sep)
    • Principal Supervisors: Dedicate time to instructional leadership growth. Coach with focus on teaching and learning, even amidst operational demands.
    • Teaching and Learning: Support use of common, research-based definition of high-quality, culturally responsive teaching. Help foster teacher learning communities with necessary autonomy and resources.
    • Human Resources: Recruit and select teachers based mainly on performance. Emphasize recruiting and retaining teachers of color. Partner with principals to match teachers to roles and teams.
    • Data Systems: Provide principals with ready access to information about their students and staff, with strengths-based, antiracist approach.
    • Operational Staff: Partner with principals to provide high-quality services that ensure that facilities, transportation, and food services support high-quality instruction.
  • Sustaining teacher training in a shifting environment. (ERR; 2020 Jul)

Systems and operations