Public Education's Response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic

Benjamin Olneck-Brown 1/14/2021

coronavirus covid-19

NCSL is monitoring the evolving situation related to the coronavirus and will continue to update this page as new information becomes available. This page details issues, resources, and actions related to K-12 education and COVID-19: for information on closely related issues, see the resources below.

K-12 Education 

The COVID-19 crisis continues to rattle K-12 education into 2021. Most experts conclude that schools may not operate normally until next school year at the earliest. Educators and policymakers face daunting challenges to ensure that U.S. students receive a quality education in an unprecedented environment. With more than 50 million school age children in the U.S, K-12 education policy has rarely been more pertinent and contentious. NCSL tracks current research and state and federal action to assist our members in making decisions that support each child’s educational growth.

Reopening Schools

In spring of 2020, public health orders closed schools around the country to in-person instruction. This fall, and continuing into the spring semester, school leaders have grappled with how, whether, and when to safely reopen schools. Operating schools in-person presents logistical dilemmas in containing the spread of COVID-19, such as universal mask use, screening for symptoms, and social distancing in the classroom and on school transportation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates the cost of mitigation strategies may rise as high as $442 per student.

Although schools do not appear to be primary sources of viral spread, in-person operation without significant new investment and safety measures is opposed by many educators and public health advocates due to the risk that gathering indoors poses to teachers, staff, and students. National data, gathered by associations of school administrators and Brown University, suggest that although COVID-19 cases among students and staff are relatively rare, the risk of infection is higher in districts that operate in person at full capacity. However, fully remote instruction has raised concerns that students without broadband access, students of color, low-performing students, and low-income students may fall behind their peers. One recent study found that in communities with low rates of COVID-19 infection, risks of spread in schools remained rare; however, in communities with higher rates of transmission—including most of the U.S.—opening schools contributed to increased spread. Another study found inconclusive effects of school reopening on COVID-19 in communities with high rates of transmission.

The CDC offers guidelines for in-person learning, including the use of masksscreening for symptomstesting and protecting staff from exposure. In addition, the agency released a set of indicators based on local COVID-19 transmission and test positivity rates for district leaders to use in making reopening decisions. Analysis by the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) found that fewer than half of districts were operating fully in-person in fall of 2020, with a significant rural-urban divide in mode of operation. However, districts have prioritized in-person access for younger students and students with disabilities: nearly 60% of districts offered full in-person learning for elementary grades, and in remote or hybrid districts, students with disabilities had priority access to in-person instruction.

For many U.S. students, the last two school semesters have brought constant change and whiplash—and the spring looks to provide more of the same. Reports of districts, schools or student cohorts moving from in-person to remote learning due to cases of COVID-19 have been widespread, and with cases rising in much of the country such changes are likely to continue. Recent polling indicates parents’ concerns about their child’s exposure to COVID-19 at school and about their child missing instructional time due to school closures are roughly equal. Changing circumstances and competing concerns indicate a fluid and uncertain landscape moving into the spring semester.

State Action

In Spring of 2020, governors and state education agencies developed plans that lay out requirements or recommendations for the safe operation of schools. According to CRPE, about half of states tied reopening decisions to identifiable public health criteria, such as COVID-19 test positivity or local case counts. State plans include diverse approaches to making reopening decisions, including:

  • Tying the method of learning that schools may use to specific case levels or positivity rates at the state or local level (e.g. Delaware and Minnesota).
  • Allowing schools to use hybrid or in-person learning models based on the phase of the state’s economic reopening (e.g. Illinois and Indiana).
  • Tying the method of instruction that districts may use to coded levels of infection, without specifying the metrics used to determine those levels (e.g. Hawaii and Colorado).
  • Making recommendations for districts based on case levels, positivity rates or other metrics and designations, but leaving decision-making about learning methods to local districts (e.g. Washington and Idaho).
  • Requiring some level of in-person instruction, while allowing districts to obtain a waiver based on high levels of local COVID-19 transmission (e.g. Arkansas and Iowa).

Although state plans place requirements and provide recommendations to districts on many reopening-related topics, in much of the country closure and reopening decisions remain a localized, district-level affair. Some state legislatures have included additional funds for K-12 schools in order to support safer in-person instruction. These bills include:

  • Georgia H.B. 793 – Provides additional funds above and beyond the initial appropriation for school districts below the statewide average of per-pupil wealth.
  • Idaho H.B. 628 – Appropriates funds to the Public School Educational Support Programs for classroom technology and instructional management.
  • Hawaii S.B. 126 – Provides funds requested by the Governor for implementing provisions of the CARES Act and other supports for schools and public institutions during the public health crisis.

Other states have responded to concerns that school districts’ general liability insurance would not include COVID-19-related claims. Now that most states have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks among those students who attend classes in person full time or in a hybrid model, the question of liability has become more pressing. Enacted legislation includes:

  • Louisiana H.B. 826 – Exempts persons, state or local government agencies, or political subdivisions from liability for any civil damages for injury or death resulting from or related to exposure to COVID-19 during the performance of the person’s, government’s or political subdivision’s business operations unless certain conditions are met.
  • Louisiana H.B. 59a – Provides limitations on liability for school districts and institutions of higher education during a declared public health emergency.


COVID-19 Testing and Vaccination

Since the beginning of the pandemic, public health officials have emphasized that widespread testing and contact tracing are necessary to limit caseloads and return institutions—including schools—to normal operation. Schools and districts that chose to operate with in-person or hybrid instruction models in the fall built testing and contract tracing protocols into their reopening plans. Thus far, most testing and quarantine protocols have focused on identified and symptomatic cases in the school community and their close contacts. Current CDC guidelines recommend testing symptomatic school community members and their close contacts, and sampling school communities for surveillance testing.  

Leading public health experts argue that states and local governments should prioritize opening schools ahead of bars, restaurants and other businesses. The American Academy of Pediatrics urged a safe return to school this fall, citing negative impacts on students’ academic performance, physical and mental health, and social and emotional development resulting from closed campuses. However, widespread school closures indicate more robust testing and contact tracing may be needed to curb the spread of COVID-19 in schools and return students to the classroom.

To build out testing infrastructure in local communities, the Rockefeller Foundation has worked with state leaders to form the State and Territory Alliance for Testing (STAT). With 22 participating states, STAT aims to institute rapid testing in schools and other essential settings and to improve states’ logistical testing and contact tracing capacities to facilitate reopening. President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team has committed to reopening schools, and to pursuing billions of dollars in federal funding for regular rapid testing of students, teachers and staff. Although increased availability of rapid tests may aid in detecting COVID-19 outbreaks and reducing the spread of the virus, public health officials warn that testing must be part of a broader strategy, including mitigation measures like masks, sanitation and, eventually, vaccination for school staff and teachers.

As the FDA moved toward its December authorization of multiple COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use, discussion centered on plans for vaccine distribution and prioritization. In particular, policymakers debated how to balance prioritizing vaccines for essential front-line workers, including teachers and school staff, versus older adults who are more susceptible to severe outcomes from COVID-19. On Dec. 22, 2020, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) updated its recommendations for vaccine distribution: frontline workers, including school staff, are included in group “1B,” along with individuals 75 and older. This group is recommended to receive the vaccine after most healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities are vaccinated, but before the general population under 75.

State Action

All states and territories have developed vaccination plans, which specify how the state will distribute vaccines allocated to them by the federal government and which groups will be prioritized. According to analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45 states adhered to ACIP guidelines for phase “1A” vaccination, focused on long-term care residents and health care workers. According to a review by the National Academy for State Health Policy, 38 states plan to vaccinate teachers and school staff in Phase One. Among states that have established their phase 1B and 1C vaccination plans, approaches include:

  • Adhering to ACIP guidelines, prioritizing frontline workers, including school staff, along with individuals 75 and over for phase 1B vaccination.
  • Prioritizing all individuals 65 and over prior to frontline workers, including school staff, for phase 1B vaccination (e.g. Alabama, Maryland).
  • Prioritizing individuals 65 and over with high-risk medical conditions prior to frontline workers, including school staff, for phase 1B vaccination (e.g. North Carolina, Tennessee).

States also acted to develop testing plans, submitted to the CDC. States including Colorado, Connecticut and Louisiana identified school staff and students as priority populations for surveillance testing in order to identify outbreaks and curb the spread of COVID-19. For more information on testing and vaccination, please consult NCSL’s Health Program.


Remote Instruction

Remote and hybrid learning have become commonplace across the U.S. during the pandemic, and with high case counts throughout the country, these instructional models will likely be a part of students’ lives through the spring semester and perhaps into the next school year. However, remote learning has not been deployed uniformly. Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) analysis showed that more than half of school districts began the year with some form of hybrid or distance learning, but that students living in or near poverty were more likely than their higher-income peers to start the school year remotely. Later analysis showed that through the fall, urban districts with larger populations of students of color were significantly more likely to continue remote instruction.

These divergences raise concerns that income- and race-based achievement gaps will grow during the pandemic: low-income students and students of color are more likely than their peers to lack broadband and these students uniquely benefit from in-person interaction with educators. Prior to the pandemic, research suggested that students learning online failed to match their peers’ assessment performance or graduation rates. As this school year began, major news reports documented the struggles low-income students faced when trying to complete remote work or even attend class.

As case counts have risen in rural communities, more rural districts have considered or moved to remote or hybrid instruction, prompting concerns that a lack of broadband access may affect students’ ability to learn. Students in rural communities face particularly severe challenges in accessing the internet for schoolwork. Pew Research has found that as many as 15% of school-age children lack in-home connectivity, and this number doubles for students in families with income below $30,000. Low-income students in rural communities may face nearly insurmountable difficulties in completing schoolwork or attending class online. This homework gap extends to the devices to which students have access: Black, Hispanic, and low-income students are more likely to try to complete schoolwork on a cell phone rather than a desktop or laptop computer.  

The State Education Technology Directors’ Association (SETDA) has studied the broadband imperative for years, emphasizing state agency and district efforts to partner with the private sector to distribute hotspots and devices and improve broadband networks for students who lack connectivity. The federal E-Rate program supports broadband connectivity and other digital learning infrastructure for schools and libraries, and during the COVID-19 crisis schools can purchase additional bandwidth to improve remote learning.

Across the political spectrum, commentators have argued that COVID-19 provides an opportunity to reimagine remote learning and better incorporate digital technologies into schooling. The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute recommended major investments in staff training for digital instruction, broadband and device access, and social-emotional needs for students learning from home. The right-leaning American Enterprise Institute suggested that the proliferation of pandemic learning pods indicates an appetite for school choice programs like hybrid homeschooling and education savings accounts. Khan Academy, the most successful provider of free online learning resources, has launched new tutoring programs to improve the quality of learning for students using its product.

State Action

States have acted since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis to support broadband connectivity and remote learning access. Bills include:

  • Idaho H.B. 576 - Creates a new source of funding for digital curriculum to which school districts can apply, with the state department of education awarding grants of up to $50,000.
  • Mississippi H.B. 1792 - Appropriates $150 million in federal coronavirus relief aid to schools for remote instruction, creating the Equity in Distance Learning Fund.

The CARES Act provided billions of dollars to states to support K-12 education. States have used these funds to address the digital divide, including:

  • The West Virginia Kids Connect Initiative – Adds broadband extenders to school and community sites and provides hotspots to students who lack in-home connectivity.
  • Alabama Broadband Connectivity for Students – Provides vouchers that families can use to purchase devices for remote learning.
  • Virtual Virginia – CARES Act funds support this resource, which allows teachers to share online instruction content and resources statewide.


Learning Loss, Assessments and Accountability

As schools closed last spring, states quickly recognized that administration of regularly scheduled spring exams would be impacted. Citing the disruption to students’ lives and the difficulty of rapidly shifting to online instruction, state leaders advocated for exemptions from federal requirements for high-stakes testing. By the end of March 2020, the U.S. Department of Education had offered a waiver from testing requirements in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and all 50 states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, had cancelled their state exams.

This year, incoming Education Secretary-Designee Miguel Cardona faces the difficult decision of whether to issue states another waiver from required student assessment. Required federal testing affects schools’ ratings in state accountability systems, potential school closures, funding, and myriad other decisions affecting students and teachers. Influential teachers’ unions and other parent and student advocacy groups have long opposed tying high-stakes standardized testing to teacher employment and school funding. In the pandemic, they are arguing for performance- and project-based testing as opposed to the typically required exams.

Annual assessments are not only used to evaluate teachers and schools, but they are also vital sources of data regarding student growth and knowledge. Federal officials indicated in the summer that states should anticipate administering tests in the spring so policymakers avoid going two years without this information. The Council of Chief State School Officers released a statement in support of administering tests in the spring, aiming to engage parents and classroom teachers in designing assessments that effectively measure student learning in unprecedented circumstances. If states move forward with testing, officials face steep challenges in administering tests safely as COVID-19 case counts continue to grow, including secure remote testing of students with unequal access to broadband.

The question of assessments and accountability during the pandemic is made more urgent by student learning loss data. Spring projections suggested that students may have returned this school year with less than two-thirds their normal annual learning gains. Fall studies suggest substantial variations, but clear losses across states: most students are behind where students stood last year, particularly in math, and student performance in schools with a majority of students of color may lag other schools by at least ten percentage points. The gap between low-income students and students of color and their peers may be attributed to a higher likelihood of these students learning remotely, and more representative data in the future may show even greater learning loss and larger equity gaps.

Learning loss resulting from school closures has impacts that can extend into adulthood, including reduced earning potential and educational attainment. States, districts and schools have sought to leverage afterschool and summer programming to mitigate learning loss and help students catch up. In tandem with classroom education these programs can be valuable in combatting the effects of the pandemic.

As policymakers review assessment policy for 2021, they will balance the need for data on learning loss with concerns that high-stakes testing can further exacerbate the challenges of pandemic-era teaching.

State Action

As they await federal guidance on required spring exams, some states have already acted to bolster or alter their assessment and accountability infrastructure for this school year. For example:

  • In California, the State Board of Education voted unanimously to replace its standardized exam with a shorter, streamlined assessment.
  • Georgia’s Department of Education sought a waiver prior to the start of the school year, aiming to cancel all standardized testing. South Carolina HB 5202 instructed the state Department of Education to seek a similar waiver.
  • State guidance in Virginia indicated the state will proceed with required assessment unless federal directives urge them to do otherwise.
  • Georgia SB 367 and Colorado HB 1135 reduce the number of required state exams.

Other state legislation directly addresses the learning loss phenomenon to mitigate the educational impacts of the pandemic. Such efforts include:

  • California SB 74 – Provides appropriations for learning loss mitigation, professional development connected to learning loss and remote teaching preparation.
  • Tennessee HB 2470 – Creates a task force to examine the effects of the pandemic on educational systems, including student achievement.
  • Massachusetts HB 4616 – Requires districts to develop academic recovery plans.


Attendance and Instructional Time

The switch to remote and hybrid learning has called into question how schools will monitor student attendance and instructional time. In many states, statute ties school funding to schools meeting certain requirements for “seat time” for each student. In addition, state accountability systems use student attendance rates as a key performance metric for establishing school ratings and determining sanctions. Prior to the pandemic, most schools measured attendance and instructional time straightforwardly: by taking measures to ensure students were physically present in the classroom, and counting the time spent in this physical learning environment. In addition, fall “count days” have long served as key moments in determining the amount of funding each school receives based on the number of students present on a statutorily determined-date.

COVID-19 and the advent of widespread remote learning have upended traditional practices and metrics. With students learning from home or assigned to cohorts that come to school less frequently, districts cannot use typical measures to track attendance and instructional time. In addition, concerns about absenteeism and “lost” students have been rising. Educators responding to an October Education Week survey reported that unexcused absences doubled after the onset of the pandemic. Absenteeism is associated with other negative consequences for students, including worse performance in coursework and on standardized tests, lower college attendance rates, reduced lifetime earnings, and increased incarceration rates. Absenteeism and its negative effects were more prevalent among low-income students and students of color before the pandemic; early reports suggest that these vulnerable students are being hit harder by these challenges in the COVID-19 era as well.

Experts in student attendance and absenteeism argue that effective data collection and early intervention are crucial to combating the negative impacts of student absenteeism. Attendance Works, a national coalition promoting improved student attendance, recommends that school districts track attendance daily, even in remote learning, invest in data and research and promote equitable access to remote attendance. These recommendations, and much public debate, also address whether states should hold schools and families accountable for student attendance during the pandemic.

State Action

Most state reopening plans address both instructional time and attendance or fall count requirements. State approaches to instructional time include:

  • Maintaining the standard instructional time requirement during distance learning (e.g. Arizona, Minnesota).
  • Maintaining the standard instructional time requirement, but explicitly allowing flexibility for districts to meet this requirement during distance learning (e.g. Colorado, Indiana).
  • Waiving standard instructional time requirements and allowing state agencies to set remote learning policies (e.g. Arkansas, Maine).
  • Offering seat time waivers to districts to account for school closures (e.g. Georgia, Wisconsin).
  • Reducing required instructional time (e.g. Mississippi, Massachusetts).

State approaches to attendance collection and requirements for accountability systems include:

  • Maintaining standard attendance requirements in remote learning (e.g. New York, Ohio).
  • Specifying the means by which a student should be marked present in remote learning, including teacher contact, assignment completion and online login (e.g. Nevada, Texas).
  • Allowing districts to determine their attendance policy (e.g. Alabama, New Jersey).
  • Requiring districts to submit attendance plans for remote learning (e.g. North Dakota, Rhode Island).
  • Waiving attendance requirements and using the previous year attendance figures for accreditation and funding allocation (Maine, Montana).

State legislatures have also addressed attendance and instructional time through legislation. Examples of state action include:

  • Kentucky SB 177 – Reduces the required instructional hours and allows districts to submit a plan to meet requirements through a nontraditional learning plan, including remote instruction.
  • Maine SB 789 – Waives compulsory attendance and instructional time requirements for the Fall semester.
  • Michigan HB 5910 – Provides for E-learning days as part of the school calendar.
  • New Jersey SB 2027 – Establishes guidelines for virtual instruction in order to meet instructional time requirements.


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