The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Students and Educational Systems

Critical Actions for Recovery and the Role of Research in the Years Ahead
Heather J. Hough
Policy Analysis for California Education, Stanford University
Jeannie Myung
Policy Analysis for California Education, Stanford University
Benjamin W. Domingue
Stanford University
Christopher Edley, Jr.
University of California, Berkeley
Michal Kurlaender
University of California, Davis
Julie A. Marsh
University of Southern California
Cecilia Rios-Aguilar
University of California, Los Angeles


The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) recently issued a report providing guidance on the future of education research at the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research, two centers directed by IES. The report identifies critical problems and issues; details new methods and approaches; and specifies the kinds of research investments needed in the future. In addition to hearing from outside experts and soliciting public input, the committee commissioned Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) to produce a paper to help synthesize existing evidence in the field and frame recommendations.

The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Students and Educational Systems, Critical Actions for Recovery, and the Role of Research in the Years Ahead (completed September 2021 and published May 2022) presents a summary of early findings on the impact of the pandemic and offers recommendations for how research can be leveraged to address differential impacts, advance equity, and drive system improvement.

Research Agenda for Learning Recovery and Equity in the Longer Term

Education policy and practice is at an inflection point. There is now an opportunity to learn from what has transpired since the onset of the pandemic and to use that knowledge to inform decisions about how to navigate through the next critical phase. This moment also offers the potential for reimagining and rebuilding public schools for the long term in order to meet the learning needs of students using approaches that are consistent with the science of learning and development.

What are the research knowledge gaps that, if addressed, could support schools and communities as they recover from COVID-19? Below we describe four areas of research that can inform learning recovery in the short term and improve system performance and equity in the longer term:


What happened? What can we learn from how school systems responded in the first year and a half of the pandemic (spring 2020–summer 2021)?

  • How have teachers and administrators been affected by the pandemic (mental health, morale, turnover)? In what ways were prior workforce issues exacerbated? What new workforce concerns have arisen?
  • What has been learned about the uses of technology, especially online instruction? Which groups did it work for or not? What specific content areas and skills were particularly challenging to teach and learn at a distance? Were there any areas and skills that seemed well suited to remote learning? What innovations should be kept and used to improve instruction in the future?
  • What do close analyses of the experiences and outcomes of English learners, students with disabilities, Black students, low-income students, students experiencing homelessness, foster youth, and LGBTQ+ students show? These students were more likely not only more likely to be affected by the pandemic but also to have remained online throughout the 2020–21 year.
  • What unique factors characterize pandemic response and recovery in rural school systems that have lower rates of both vaccination and internet connectivity?

What is happening? How can we monitor and learn from what happenS in the 2021–22 and 2022–23 school years?

  • How is the infusion of federal and state one-time monies being implemented and what is the impact of this funding? In particular, what is being done to support mental health/social-emotional learning as well as academic learning, and what are the quality and the impact of those efforts? What evidence-based interventions are being used and how have they been selected? How will these efforts be sustained?
  • How can schools best identify students in need of mental health support, including those with adverse childhood experiences or chronic stress?
  • Which personalized learning strategies are most effective at accelerating learning?
  • To what extent is the Multi-Tiered System of Supports model being implemented, and what infrastructure, resources, and culture are necessary for this approach to result in improvements for students?
  • What is the ongoing role of technology in classrooms as part of instruction and learning-recovery interventions?
  • How are schools/systems addressing issues of racial injustice as well as methods for teaching about this subject matter?
  • How can schools prepare for the anticipated surge of kindergarteners who were kept home last year, and for incoming kindergarteners who did not attend preschool during the pandemic?
  • Which schools are continuing to offer online instruction or prohibiting it, and why? Which students are continuing to enroll in distance learning programs? What are the equity implications and potential for newly segregated schooling? What is the quality of instruction, and where are there opportunities for support (e.g., counseling, extracurricular)? How are teachers supported and prepared to teach online? Which students thrive and which don’t thrive in virtual school, and why? What could be learned about the conditions that enable those to thrive and could that knowledge inform in-person schooling?
  • What are the current patterns in student enrollment? Are families sending their students to public schools? If so, why, and what are the resulting system implications?
  • Once standardized testing resumes, what patterns will we see in learning recovery and acceleration?

How can capacity be built for long-term improvement? What can we learn about building institutional capacity so that school systems can not only address recovery but also reliably and equitably serve whole-child needs?

  • What capacities are necessary for organizations to transform to meet student needs? How can systems develop their capacity for improvement and impact?
  • How can the K–12 education system be better aligned with higher education systems and the labor market to ensure successful transitions for young adults between high school and postsecondary pursuits? How can financial aid be made more transparent and accessible?
  • What mechanisms can be put in place to hold school systems accountable for providing opportunities to learn as opposed to holding them accountable only for student outcomes?
  • What resources, systems, and policies are necessary to professionalize teaching and to build a robust and diverse pipeline of teachers in the current context and into the future?
  • How can school systems improve their data infrastructure for more efficient data collection and improved data use? What can be done to integrate student data sets within institutions, and then between institutions/sectors?
  • How do systems continue to navigate the politics of COVID-19 while addressing the interest-based pressures pulling school boards and local leaders in vastly different directions? How do we enhance engagement while advancing the public good (i.e., how do we avoid the “loudest voices” phenomenon)?
  • How can school district personnel develop working knowledge of cost-benefit analysis and which processes and structures support its use in decision-making?
  • How can we ensure equitable distribution of funds in the long term and what are effective ways to increase public willingness to invest in education?
  • What is the appropriate/effective role of the state in public education?
  • What knowledge and skills do teachers require in order to be able to implement competency-based approaches to teaching and learning?

What research methods provide the knowledge we need in the short and long term? What research methods are best equipped to help us understand student needs and how best to meet them?

  • How can we elevate the rigor and impact of student-centered research that captures the nuances of student experiences, intersectional identities, and student motivations to learn?
  • How can researchers better engage those who are closest to the students (i.e., families) in order to inform how to best serve families?
  • IES has historically invested in quantitative, quasi-experimental, and experimental research. What is needed now is an understanding of the processes, structures, and conditions associated with efforts to support recovery (which could complement the IES School Pulse Panel). This will require an investment in qualitative and mixed-methods research as well as training opportunities.
  • What are models for increasing interdisciplinary and interagency (e.g., education, transportation, housing, labor, etc.) research that can be applied in education to increase interdisciplinary research on schools? Despite decades of efforts to bridge research and practice, the divide is still wide. What have we learned about effective research–practice partnerships?
  • What data infrastructure is needed to produce research that will support interdisciplinary and interagency efforts that center on racial equity? How can this research include data on families, communities, out-of-school experiences, work histories, and more?

This paper was commissioned for the Committee on the Future of Education Research at the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) in the U.S. Department of Education, whose work was supported by the U.S. Department of Education. Opinions and statements included in the paper are solely those of the individual authors, and are not necessarily adopted, endorsed, or verified as accurate by the Committee on the Future of Education Research at the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education, the Board on Science Education, or the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Commissioned paper image created for IES by Elizabeth Hora, Northwestern University.

Suggested citationHough, H. J., Myung, J., Domingue, B. W., Edley, C., Jr., Kurlaender, M., Marsh, J. A., & Rios-Aguilar, C. (2021, September). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students and educational systems: Critical actions for recovery and the role of research in the years ahead [Commissioned paper]. The future of education research at IES: Advancing an equity-oriented science. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.