Implementation of Hybrid and Virtual Learning in the U.S. during COVID-19

The overwhelming majority of schools shifted to online instruction starting in March 2020, implementing either completely virtual or hybrid learning. This has presented several challenges for both educators, students, and their families due to unequal access to education and inadequate home learning environments. Several online surveys conducted in March during the beginning of the pandemic showed that teachers had several students not logging in to complete assignments. In comparison to in-person learning models, teachers are teaching less new material to students and taking a longer time to cover material, a trend that is especially evident in high poverty schools.

Online teacher instruction
Research regarding online teacher instruction has shown that it is only effective if students have consistent access to the internet, electronic devices, and teachers have received targeted training and support for online instruction. Unfortunately, this has not been the reality during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many teachers were not well-trained or prepared to solely transition to virtual learning. In a study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, it was found that about 1/3 of teachers reported not receiving any training in the past 12 months on how to use computers for educational instruction. In a follow-up analysis of this finding, of those who did receive technology training, about 1/3 did not find it useful. Another study showed that at the beginning of the pandemic, teachers felt like they had an above-average workload trying to adapt to online instruction.

Student access to technology
Inequities in digital technologies were known and present before the spread of COVID-19, but they have been exacerbated now that remote learning has assumed a more prominent role as parents are facilitating the education of their children. According to the U.S. Census American Community Survey in 2018, one out of every four children do not have full access to digital technology at home.

This lack of technology is not felt equally across all students: certain population are more likely to lack technology access than other. On a regional level there are grand differences in technology access depending on the state. Mississippi and Arkansas have over 40% of students without full technology, compared to Massachusetts and New Hampshire with less than 16%. Numerous sources also found that students, especially those in rural and low-income areas, struggle to maintain consistent access to the technology needed for virtual learning. School-aged children below the federal poverty line at 26% less likely to have access to both internet and a computer than students above the federal poverty threshold. Other populations at risk for having less access to technology are students of colors, and especially Native students, of which only 50% are reported to have full access to technology. This means that a considerable number of students lack access to technology, which presented a problem as education shifted to an overwhelming virtual mode of delivery.

Some students also rely on free internet and technology provided in school, which would not be an option for these students under in-person school closures.

Special student populations
There are an estimated 6.7 million students in the United States that receive Special Education Services under the Individuals With Disabilities Act, which requires school districts to provide free and appropriate education to students with special needs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, several school districts struggled to create virtual programming for their special needs students, who were often at an increased risk of learning loss. Even with proper resources, special needs students can often not receive the same level of education at home, due to a lack of career/technical education, physical therapy, and medical care. A shift to virtual learning situates parents as the primary implementer of their child's educations, which can be hard on families who do not have the knowledge or infrastructure to take this on. In several cases, parents cannot replace the skills and expertise of special education teachers, which impacts a student's development (particularly those with Down Syndrome and Specific Learning Disabilities).

The disruption in daily school routines may have severe ramifications on students with conditions like autism, which thrive on routine and regular schedules. Additionally, students with Autism are more likely to have anxiety and are losing key social and learning opportunities that are helpful for their development.

Recommendations for providing adequate care to students with special needs include utilizing Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA) provided by a nonpublic agency (NPA) who will be able to support students both academically and behaviorally. A collaboration between schools and NPAs has been shown to yield outcomes regarding attempts to limit regression in student's skills.

Modified grading scales
Although school districts across the country varied in their implementation of grading scales during the pandemic, nearly every district choose to amend how students were evaluated. Universal pass/fail, optional pass/fail, and no grading systems were all adapted during the Spring 2020 semester.

In California, the California Department of Education (CDE) set out guidelines on how districts should approach grading. These guidelines included letting students keep their pre-pandemic grade, assigning students automatic credit among completion of a course (as opposed to letter or numerical grades), and allowing students to opt-out of a course until they feel adept to complete it. Most school districts in California followed CDE's guidelines, with the LA school district choosing to adopt a no-fail policy. School districts across the country followed in implementing similarly modified grading scales, with DC Public Schools and Chicago Public Schools choosing to give students letter-grades based on their pre-pandemic assessments, although students are allowed to improve their grades.

Overall, school districts are encouraged to approach grading holistically and equitably. However, several people have pointed out that this "do no harm" approach does not address the existing problems with grading systems before COVID-19.