Access to a reliable Internet connection was a major barrier to remote and hybrid learning for students residing in urban areas of Pennsylvania during the first full year of the pandemic, according to new research from Mathematica. Although local education agencies (LEAs) across the state reported few challenges with ensuring students had access to digital devices, more than half of urban LEAs reported students had connectivity issues.
This was one finding from the new brief, School Instruction in Pennsylvania During the COVID-19 Pandemic, which provides an overview of how LEAs, including both traditional school districts and charter schools, implemented different approaches to deliver instruction and support students’ needs during the 2020–2021 school year.
“The results highlighted both the extent of challenges during the 2020–2021 school year and the actions that school districts and charter schools took to safely deliver instruction,” said Noe Ortega, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Education. “The results also provide us with an opportunity to enhance our response and support schools as the pandemic continues,” he added.
Data featured in the brief come from an online survey the Pennsylvania Department of Education and Mathematica distributed to a representative sample of 200 school districts and charter schools during summer and fall 2021. The findings highlight how Pennsylvania schools prioritized in-person learning for historically underserved groups, balanced in-person and remote learning, deployed educational technology to facilitate remote learning, and supported the health and well-being of students.
- In-person learning expanded as the 2020–2021 school year progressed. About half of Pennsylvania students were enrolled in LEAs that began the year offering only remote learning. By the last month of the school year, nearly all students were in LEAs offering at least some in-person learning, and about half were in LEAs with full in-person learning for elementary and middle school grades.
- Most students were in LEAs that prioritized students with disabilities for in-person instruction. However, many LEAs reported greater difficulty providing special education services because of the pandemic. For example, half of all students were in LEAs where hands-on supports such as help from one-on-one aides and physical and occupational therapy were substantially more difficult to provide to students with disabilities than before the pandemic.
- Most students were in LEAs that adopted a wide range of health and safety measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, though few offered regular COVID-19 testing. For example, all LEAs had established COVID-19 cleaning protocols and almost all restricted entry into schools. Only 20 percent of students were in LEAs with regular COVID-19 testing for students and staff.
- The majority of students were in LEAs that provided resources to support students’ mental, emotional, and physical well-being. For example, 95 percent of students were in LEAs where counselors or similar staff provided mental health counseling.
“Students had different school experiences during the pandemic,” said Stephen Lipscomb, a Mathematica principal researcher. “We need to understand how these differences helped shape student outcomes to better support all learners, and particularly those most vulnerable to education inequities.”
Mathematica conducted the survey in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Education to understand how the pandemic has shaped educational outcomes. Funding for the research was made possible by a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.