Early Pandemic Response in California

Identifying the Structural and Instructional Changes in K–12
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Alexandria Hurtt
University of California, Davis
Kramer A. Dykeman
University of California, Davis
Sherrie Reed Bennett
University of California, Davis


In March 2020, school districts across California closed their doors, rapidly adapting operations and instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Efforts to understand the immediate impact of the unprecedented closure of schools prompted grave concerns about meeting students’ needs, particularly for the most vulnerable. In fact, recent research indicates that learning loss related to school closures in the spring and fall of 2020 was disproportionately experienced by younger students, low-income students, and English learners. However, little is known about the specific changes made to operations early in the pandemic, how these changes may have contributed to this learning loss, and to what extent they will continue to shape student learning and well-being in the long run. This report fills some of that knowledge gap by proffering the first systematic review of school practices within California initially after school closures in spring 2020.

Drawing on a novel dataset constructed from the websites of 168 unified school districts serving more than 40 percent of K–12 students in the state, we examined adaptations to policies and practices in the early period after school closures. We found that districts clearly communicated plans to meet students’ basic needs, including providing free or reduced-cost meals and increasing access to technology. In contrast, the information available on districts’ websites about instruction, assessments, and attendance was unclear and inconsistent. Moreover, we observed variation in district operations by location and by characteristics of students served. Specifically, we found evidence on websites that:

  • Nearly all districts provided no cost meals to students and their families with few eligibility requirements.
  • Most districts supported students during spring school closures by increasing access to computers, internet connectivity, and technology assistance.
  • The transition to remote instruction took 16 calendar days on average, though for some districts it was immediate and for others it took nearly 2 months.
  • Two thirds of districts provided synchronous instruction through conferencing services like Zoom or Google, though some were more likely to use paper or take-home materials. Rural districts and those with a high proportion of low-income students were less likely to offer synchronous instruction.
  • Many districts adopted alternative grading plans—such as “hold harmless” policies and pass/fail grading scales—to preserve students’ prior academic progress.
  • Less than half of districts published plans to track attendance and check on students with low or zero attendance rates.

While it will be some time before the full impact of school closures on student learning may be measurable, understanding how school districts altered operations at the onset of the pandemic is essential to future policy efforts aimed at ensuring compensatory approaches as part of postpandemic recovery efforts across the state.

Read the full report here.

Suggested citationHurtt, A., Cohen, K., & Reed, S. (with J. Huynh & J. Luu). (2021, March). Early pandemic response in California: Identifying the structural and instructional changes in K–12 [Report]. Policy Analysis for California Education.