Teaching & Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have disrupted numerous aspects of our lives including education, placing new demands and constraints on families, teachers, and students. In this Spotlight, five projects funded through NSF’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) funding mechanism share their research and development efforts to understand the impacts of the pandemic on STEM teaching and learning, as well as support educators in teaching about and during COVID-19. In addition, Vanessa Peters discusses early results of a synthesis of research on STEM education during the COVID-19 pandemic as their team prepares for a workshop where researchers will discuss major themes, approaches to addressing emerging inequities, and implications for teaching, learning, and research.

In this Spotlight:

Synthesizing Findings from Education Research Conducted During the Pandemic: Emerging Lessons From COVID-19

Vanessa Peters, Senior Learning Sciences Researcher, Digital Promise

Vanessa Peters

In this brief report, we share early selected findings from a review and synthesis of research outcomes on the unanticipated effects of the pandemic on STEM teaching and learning. The summary includes research from RAPID and non-RAPID awards across a range of NSF directorates, divisions, and programs, and draws on research conducted on both K-12 and undergraduate STEM teaching and learning. 

Teaching the science of COVID-19
Several awards used the context of the pandemic to develop resources for teaching STEM concepts to students. In a project that targeted youth audiences, Diamond et al. (2021) created comic stories that helped young audiences understand the science behind COVID-19. Developed in collaboration with virologists and artists, the fictional comic stories addressed topics in biology, virology, and network science to help readers understand the complexities of living through a viral pandemic. While youth both enjoyed and appreciated learning from comics, questions remain around artistic representations that can support science identity among youth who are historically underrepresented in science. In a study by Strawhacker et al. (2021), researchers simulated a pandemic in the virtual world Whyville to provide a safe space for youth to learn about serious pandemic-related topics such as infection, asymptomatic disease transmission, prevention measures, and the consumption of public reports of health information.

At the undergraduate level, Garza and Solis-Cavazos (2021) engaged community college students in a faculty-developed curriculum where students collected real-time data about the coronavirus to develop their quantitative reasoning skills. Students recorded their daily temperatures and shared their data with the crowdsourcing app Kinsa HealthWeather that uses anonymized, aggregated data to provide information to the public about illness levels in local areas. Using in-depth qualitative interviews as data sources, Wade et al. (2021) investigated HBCU students’ COVID-19 knowledge, sources of information, and planned precautions. Findings revealed that most students viewed COVID-19 as a minor flu-like illness that originated overseas before its transition to the US.

Adaptations to K-12 science teaching and professional development
Many awards looked at the impact of the pandemic on STEM teaching and learning in K-12 schools. In a project by Gao et al. (2021), researchers surveyed California school districts and science teachers to understand the impact of COVID-19 on science education when schools were mainly virtual...

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Featured Projects

A Researcher-Practitioner-Partnership to Assess the Impact of COVID-19 Recession on NGSS Implementation (NSF #2128789)

PI: Niu Gao 
STEM Discipline: Science
Grade Band: K-12 teachers and administrators
Target Audience: State and local policymakers, administrators, science educators

Description: California adopted the California Next Generation Science Standards (CA NGSS) in 2013 to transform science teaching and learning. By spring 2020, most California districts were in the early stages of implementation, and some districts were headed toward full implementation. But the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially disruptive for science education, which has long been a lower priority than math and English language arts. In this report, we use data from multiple sources to understand the impact of COVID-19 on science education when schools were mainly virtual. We aim to (1) examine the impact of COVID-19 on science education; (2) understand the challenges in high-need districts; (3) explore districts’ plans to support science education in recovery; and (4) identify policy levers that may support an equitable science education post-pandemic and beyond. We launched a statewide survey of school districts in fall 2021, and conducted more than 30 interviews with county regional leads for science, high-need districts, districts that participated in the CA NGSS Early Implementation Initiative, statewide science organizations and state policymakers. We also downloaded and analyzed the 858 Local Control Accountability Plans available online to examine districts’ support for science education.

Findings & Recommendations: 

COVID-19 derailed science education.

  • Most districts deprioritized science during the pandemic. Science became a lower priority during the 2020–21 school year in most of the districts that participated in a Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) survey. Key CA NGSS implementation activities, such as textbook adoption and course model alignment, were delayed. Factors contributing to the lower prioritization of science included staff shortages, teacher burnout, a lack of dedicated funding, and an emphasis on English language arts (ELA) and math. However, some high-need districts—including those with large English Learner populations—have been using science content to engage students in ELA and math. 
  • Support for science education was limited. During the 2020–21 school year, 60% of districts surveyed provided supplemental instructional materials, 43% provided summer science programs, and 40% addressed social-emotional learning in support of science education. Only a quarter of districts provided small group instruction and very few offered extended science learning time during the regular school year. Only 40% of districts provided additional support to English Learners in science instruction. 
  • County offices of education received fewer requests for science-related assistance. During the pandemic, county offices created videos or webinars, provided technical assistance through virtual professional learning, continued to work with teacher leader networks, and shared grade-specific distance learning lessons. However, most county offices reported a decline in district requests for science professional learning or technical assistance.

Most district recovery plans do not prioritize science. 
Only 27% of the districts we surveyed made science a high priority in their recovery plans, whereas more than 80% prioritized math/ELA. Close to half of 2021–24 Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs) included plans to adopt, develop, or purchase new science instructional materials, 38% of districts plan to provide science teacher training, and 32% set student performance goals on standardized tests. 

How can California promote equitable investments in science education?
As schools recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, California educators and policymakers should not lose sight of the need to invest in science literacy. We offer the following recommendations:

  • The state should include science in district accountability requirements. In part, science education became a lower priority because the state did not explicitly ask districts to address “pupil learning loss” in science in their Learning Continuity and Attendance Plans, and did not include science programs its guidelines for spending stimulus money. Adding performance data for the California Science Test to the California School Dashboard will be a step in the right direction. However, the state should consider multiple accountability measures in addition to test scores—including local formative assessments, science course taking and completion, and a suggested range of instructional minutes in elementary schools—to avoid unintended consequences such as “teaching to the test.” The state could also add a line item for science education to LCAPs to encourage districts to engage with multiple partners and develop programs that support the educational needs of all students. 
  • The state could provide dedicated funding for professional learning opportunities in science. Professional learning presents big challenges in CA NGSS implementation, and most teachers were not getting the professional learning needed to implement the new standards even before the pandemic. The state allocated $1.25 billion in Common Core Implementation Funds, and it could provide a similar level of support to CA NGSS implementation.
  • The state should provide more evidence-based strategies for science learning recovery. The state’s guidance for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) and Expanded Learning Opportunities grants does not mention science, which may be discouraging districts from investing stimulus dollars in science programs. The state needs to update its guidelines to include evidence-based strategies to guide districts’ recovery efforts.
  • Educational partners need to build a statewide coalition. Interviews with educational partners indicated concerns about a lack of urgency around improving science education. Science educators, parents and caregivers, students, community-based organizations, and research communities can work together to highlight the importance of science literacy, increase awareness among policymakers, and secure resources to support science education. 

Implications for STEM Education: The findings have implications for STEM research more broadly. Science education became a lower priority during COVID-19, and districts provided limited programs to support science education during distance learning. This has important implications for student learning, as it raises concerns about lost instructional time and potential learning gaps. Most districts do not plan to prioritize science education in their recovery plans, suggesting a long and difficult recovery ahead to address pandemic impact. Our findings highlighted the urgency to dedicate resources to support science education post-pandemic and beyond.


  • Report: The Impact of COVID-19 on Science Education
  • Survey Instruments (PDF): Survey instruments are included in the technical appendix.
  • Policy Brief: A policy brief summarizes report findings and policy recommendations for state and local policymakers.
  • Public Briefing Event (August 16, 2022): PPIC plans to host a public briefing event on August 16th. Study authors will present report findings, and moderate a panel discussion featuring national, state, and local leaders. The event will be broadcast live and recorded for viewing at PPIC website and Youtube channel. 
  • Coming Soon!
    • Study authors (Niu Gao and Kathy DiRanna) plan to submit a commentary on EdSource – a widely viewed news site for California education.
    • Study authors (Niu Gao and Kathy DiRanna) plan to submit an article summarizing report findings for science educators and school administrators. The California Association of Science Educators may publish the article in its August/September publication.

Responding to an Emerging Epidemic through Science Education (NSF #2023088)

PI: Troy Sadler | Co-PIs: Patricia Friedrichsen, Laura Zangori
STEM Discipline: Biology
Grade Band: High School
Target Audience: Teachers, researchers

Description: As the pandemic unfolded, we worked with high school science teachers to create materials to support student learning about COVID, viruses, vaccines, and pandemics more generally. The materials support student learning of science associated with pandemics along with scientific practices including data analysis, argumentation, and modeling. Our partner teachers enacted these materials in their classrooms, and we conducted research related to how the materials worked, students’ interests in learning COVID-related materials, and student information seeking behaviors. Our teacher-focused research provides insights into how teachers can work together through curricular co-design to support their own learning and enact high quality science instruction. Our student-focused research sheds light on the media and information sources and formats that students prefer when faced with a socio-scientific issue. It also describes how students make decisions about what information to prioritize when dealing with an emerging issue with global significance.

Preliminary Findings: Students are interested in learning about socio-scientific issues such as COVID-19 when they are living through the issue as it unfolds, and many students look to their science teachers as reliable information sources. However, students tend to be more interested in immediately relevant aspects of the issue (e.g., “how do I keep myself and my family safe?”) than ideas that align with concepts that tend to be covered in science classes (e.g., virus structure and reproduction strategies).

Implications for STEM Education: Many ideas that students need to understand with respect to the pandemic are not well represented in the NGSS and state standards. This is likely to be the case with other, as yet unforeseen socio-scientific issues, but students should have opportunities to learn about these issues in their STEM classrooms. The STEM Education community needs to consider how to develop and enact standards that are flexible enough to account for these realities.

Products: COVID-19 Curriculum Materials: We have produced a full unit using COVID-19 as a curricular anchor. The unit is made up of eight lessons featuring opportunities for learners to explore important science concepts, engage in multiple scientific practices, and practice systems thinking.

Responding to a Global Pandemic: The Role of K-12 Science Teachers (NSF #2027397)

PI: Sean Smith | Co-PIs: Peggy Trygstad
STEM Discipline: Science
Grade Band: K-12
Target Audience: Teachers, policymakers, researchers

Description: COVID-19 has claimed over 1 million lives in the US alone. For biology/life science teachers, the pandemic presents a real-world opportunity to engage students in the science of viruses and how to reduce their transmission. But science teachers at all levels have responded to students’ needs for information and reassurance. In this way, K-12 science teachers have served an important function as public health educators.

COVID-19 still poses a significant threat to human health and well-being. If the US is to continue making progress toward eradicating the virus, it is more important than ever to ensure that accurate, up-to-date information is available and consistently communicated. Science teachers are uniquely situated to fill this role. But, to what extent do science teachers address this topic in their classrooms? When they do, where do they get their information, and is it reliable? Further, what additional support do they need to serve this role even more effectively?

To answer these questions, Horizon Research, Inc. conducted a national survey of 2,330 K–12 science teachers and follow-up interviews with a sample of 40 teachers to understand their decision making and resulting instruction about COVID during the 2019–20 academic year.

Preliminary Findings: 

  • Most science teachers addressed COVID in their classrooms, irrespective of the school and community contexts in which they worked. 
    The survey found that despite viruses not usually being a part of their curriculum, three-fourths or more of science teachers at each grade band (elementary, middle, high) devoted class time to COVID. Although life science teachers were more likely than non-life science teachers to address COVID at both the middle and high school levels, it is noteworthy that approximately 70 percent of non-life science teachers also took up the topic. Additionally, there were no significant differences in the frequency with which science teachers took up the topic based on political leaning of the county (Democratic or Republican), community type (urban, suburban, or rural), percentage of students in the school eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, or percentage of students in the school from underrepresented minority groups. This finding is particularly striking, as it points to the wide-reaching influence of teachers and potential of K–12 science instruction for disseminating accurate scientific information equitably.
  • Science teachers searched for accurate and trustworthy sources of information about COVID. 
    Study data indicate that teachers actively sought out information about the virus and disease, a difficult task given that information was, and still is, rapidly changing. Among those who addressed COVID, large percentages relied on information from health organization websites such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Johns Hopkins University, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the WHO. In fact, teachers who taught about COVID were far more likely to access health information websites than teachers who did not teach about the topic. Additionally, science teachers spent time helping students evaluate sources of information for themselves, a strategy they employed in an effort to combat misinformation and foster critical thinking. This is another important finding, as evaluating information and drawing accurate conclusions are key components of scientific literacy (NGSS Lead States, 2013).
  • Student questions served as an entry point for discussing multiple facets of COVID. 
    Across grade ranges, nearly 80 percent of teachers who devoted class time to COVID indicated that their students asked questions before they addressed the topic. This held true in life science and non-life science classes, suggesting that students turned to science teachers in all disciplines for information. Student questions prompted class discussions and activities focused on a variety of topics, including what the virus is, how it is transmitted, and treatment/diagnosis. However, students also turned to their science teachers for reassurance, raising complex and oftentimes sensitive questions (What if my parents lose their jobs because businesses are closing? Who could take care of me if I got COVID-19? When can I see my grandma again?). In fact, at the elementary level, the most important reason teachers cited for teaching about COVID was to address student fear and anxiety. These data suggest that in addition to providing accurate scientific information, teachers also provided support for student emotional and mental health, two additional components of public health.
  • Science teachers relied heavily on units and lessons they created to teach about COVID.
    Approximately half of elementary teachers and two-thirds of middle and high school teachers relied heavily on units and lessons they created to teach about COVID. Teachers noted that there were few ready-made materials available for teaching about COVID, especially in the early days of the pandemic. Further, when materials were available, they were often written at a very basic level and/or with a younger audience in mind. Although instructional materials became more prevalent over time, teachers still invested a great deal of time into fact-checking the content and modifying the materials to fit within their teaching situations and constraints. 

Implications for STEM Education: When students turned to their science teachers with questions about COVID, teachers across grade bands responded. Teacher response was thoughtful and deliberate, drawing on reputable sources of information to make informed instructional decisions as scientific knowledge of the virus and disease evolved. Teachers also provided support for student emotional and mental health when faced with difficult student questions and concerns.

Given that science teachers have demonstrated a willingness to participate in a national response to this pandemic, what can be done to support them in this role? First, teachers need resources. Although teachers were able to cobble together information from multiple sources, it took an intensive effort and substantial amount of time to do so. Instead, teachers would benefit from a curated set of resources, ideally housed by an organization they know and trust in the field of health (e.g., CDC, NIH) or science education (e.g., National Science Teaching Association). Such resources would need to be robust enough to help teachers cover a range of student questions (scientific and social/emotional) and appropriate for the grade level(s) they teach.

Second, teachers need administrators, parents, and their communities to help them make science instruction a priority. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing and future pandemics are inevitable, suggesting that ongoing science education is both necessary and warranted going forward. If science teachers are to continue building student knowledge about viruses and the resulting diseases, they need time and flexibility to do so. For example, elementary teachers would benefit from dedicated time to teach science that is not in direct competition with literacy and mathematics. Middle and high school science teachers would benefit from common planning time or extended preparation time that would allow them to thoughtfully consider how to integrate emerging scientific topics into the broader curriculum.

Finally, although teachers have done their best to address student concerns and fears related to the pandemic, most are not trained to do so. Recognizing that students will go to their science teachers with such questions, schools might consider establishing or strengthening relationships between science teachers and school counselors or psychologists to provide students with the support they need. Additionally, health organizations such as the CDC or NIH might also provide science-teacher-specific suggestions (to complement their existing suggestions for parents and caregivers) for supporting student mental health.

Advice Re: Designing & Implementing RAPID Awards: If you’re even thinking of submitting a RAPID, write a one-page concept paper and send it to a program officer. Schedule a time to talk with the program officer. Talking is much better than emailing. After that conversation, start drafing your proposal. Then, talk with the program officer again, and again, and again. Listen to their advice.


Exploring COVID and the Effects on U.S. Education: Evidence from a National Survey of American Households (NSF #2037179);
The Impact of COVID on American Education in 2021: Continued Evidence from the Understanding America Study (NSF #2120194)

PI: Anna Saavedra | Co-PI: Morgan Polikoff
STEM Disciplines: Cross-discipline (math, science, ELA, social studies)
Grade Band: K-12
Target Audience: We survey a nationally representative and longitudinal panel of parents of K-12 children. The audience for our work is broad. General press including the Economist, LA Times, New York Times, New Yorker, and Washington Post—as well as education trade journals including Chalkbeat, EdWeek, and EdSource—repeatedly cite our work. We have published our work in top journals including AERA Open, Educational Researcher, and Peabody Journal of Education. In addition to peer-review journal articles, we also write general audience articles for Brookings, 74million, the Urban Institute, and various other sources. NSF invited Principal Investigator Dr. Saavedra and co-PI Dr. Mogan Polikoff to serve as plenary co-speakers at the June 2021 NSF DRK-12 PI Meeting.  U.S. Senators have cited our work in testimony substantiating the need for permanent increases in education expenditures.

Description: Since 2014, the University of Southern California Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research has administered the Understanding America Study (UAS). The UAS is a longitudinal, national probability-based panel of approximately 10,000 U.S. residents, collecting information at multiple time points each year on economic, health, political, and other measures. Of the full sample, approximately 1,600 households include at least one child in grades K-12.

Between April 2020 and through 2022, funded by three consecutive NSF RAPID Grants—with supplemental funding from two Hewlett Foundation grants—our research team is administering over 25 rounds of questions to parents of K-12 children asking about COVID-19’s effects on their educational experiences. Topics have included technology and services access; parents’ policy preferences; levels of concern about children’s academic progress, mental health, and physical health; features of remote learning parents hope will continue; perspectives on effective instructional practices; children’s academic standing and mental health; perceived school quality; and parent interest and children’s participation in interventions like tutoring and summer school.

Our work highlights the equity implications of the pandemic and suggests the importance of encouraging widespread in-person learning. UAS results continue to inform school districts’ pandemic-related policies, and state and national policymaking. 

Preliminary Findings: Between April 2020 and January 2022, our research team has administered over 20 rounds of questions to UAS panel parents asking about COVID’s effects on their children’s K-12 educational experiences. Of those, 13 tracked children’s attendance mode, as well as their parents’ attendance preferences and school mitigation strategies (e.g., mask-wearing). 

Between April and October 2021, specifically funded by NSF RAPID Grant No. 2120194—with supplemental survey administration funding from the Hewlett Foundation—our research team administered three rounds of questions to parents asking about COVID-19’s effects on children’s K-12 educational experiences. Topics addressed in 2021 were similar to those from 2020 and included technology and services access; parents’ policy preferences; levels of concern about children’s academic progress, mental health, and physical health; features of remote learning parents hope will continue; and perspectives on effective instructional practices. We also collected measures of parents’ concerns about various child outcomes and perceptions of children’s school quality. 

  • Access to Resources
    Funded by prior grants, in April 2020, using UAS data we were the first to quantify the digital divide at the onset of COVID, finding a 35-percentage point income gap in the percent of households with children who had access to a computer and internet for children to work. In May 2020, UAS data showed that the proportions of children receiving critical school services had dropped dramatically from pre-COVID to the early months of school closure. Just over half of children receiving meals pre-COVID continued to receive meal service after school closures. In fall 2020, we used UAS data to reveal unmet learner needs, including that 40% of remote-learning children in the lowest income households had insufficient internet access. With grant No. 2120194, in spring 2021, we measured shares of families whose children’s schools were offering tutoring, summer school, and “pods” (Table 1). We found most parents were not planning to send their children to summer school or to enroll them in tutoring programs, despite widespread interest in these interventions among policymakers and educators. Also in spring 2021, we harnessed the randomization capacity of the UAS to test a messaging intervention – did messages targeted at parents’ most prominent concerns influence parents’ stated intentions to send their children to school in person? We found targeted messages successfully increased parents’ reported willingness to send their children to school in-person among those who had previously been unsure (Figure 1). Our Educational Researcher article summarizes this experiment.
  • Attendance Preferences and Modes 
    Funded by prior grants, in summer 2020, we probed parent preferences for their children’s school attendance mode for the 2020-21 school year, revealing stark differences by race and income. In fall 2020, we documented disparities in enrollment mode (i.e., in-person, hybrid, fully-remote) by subgroups, and explored parents’ perceptions of their children’s needs. Mode of attendance strongly drove educational experiences, with parents of in-person children reporting educational quality and child mental health had mostly rebounded back to pre-pandemic levels while parents of remote children still reported substantial declines. Through winter and spring 2021, we learned child enrollment mode and parents’ enrollment preferences continued to differ considerably by parent race and family income. With grant No. 2120194, in April 2021, we found for 92% of families with remote-learning children the main driver for not sending in person was either “safety concerns” or “remote learning was a better fit for the child.” This finding inspired the messaging intervention mentioned above, which showed that parents’ concerns could be addressed through targeted messaging.
  • Concerns about Children
    Bar graph
                                                                      Figure 1
    With grant No. 2120194, we learned that by spring 2021, parents of remote and hybrid learners were more concerned than parents of in-person learners about the amount their children were learning in school, as well as their engagement with school, social well-being, and emotional well-being. Parents of Black and Asian-American children were more concerned than parents of White children in these domains, and about their children’s psychological well-being and peer relationships. Parent concerns declined dramatically by the end of the 2020-21 school year and into summer 2021 in these domains including the amount children were learning. In fall 2021 we continued measuring parents’ concerns about their children and parent satisfaction with their children’s schools. Concerns by fall 2021 continued to drop and parent satisfaction—with over 90% of children attending school in-person—was similar to pre-COVID satisfaction (measured retrospectively).
  • Policy Preferences
    With prior grant funding in fall 2020, we learned parents were highly—and increasingly—supportive of mask mandates in schools, and of canceling standardized tests. By spring 2021 with funding from grant No. 2120194, we showed parents’ support for masks and vaccines in schools varied considerably by political partisanship and race/ethnicity. Also by spring 2021, parents’ support for standardized tests had rebounded. These results informed policy responses, particularly by substantiating the intensity of the need for children to have the option to return to school in person, and specifying high-priority remote learner needs.
  • Summary of Preliminary Studies 
    The pandemic has exacerbated and shed light on pre-pandemic inequalities of access to educational resources, as well as inequitable educational experiences. Our work highlights the equity implications of the pandemic and suggests the importance of encouraging widespread in-person learning opportunities and attendance for addressing COVID-19’s educational effects.

Implications for STEM Education: The implications of our work span subject areas. Though the majority of our survey questions and analyses aren’t subject-specific, when we ask parents about their children’s school quality we ask subject-specific questions about STEM as well as ELA subjects. In summer 2022 we are asking parents’ about their children’s grades overall, as well as by STEM and ELA subjects.

Advice Re: Designing & Implementing RAPID Awards: Timely analysis and dissemination has been critical to our project success. 


  • Project Website
  • UAS Education Data: UAS toplines, crosstabs, questionnaires, and data are publicly available shortly after completion of administration (i.e., within days), enabling any researcher from anywhere in the world to access data collected through this project. Other education researchers have used our data to analyze reasons for differences in parent preferences for in-person versus remote attendance. Each wave of UAS data is available for download without cost a few days after completion of data collection.

Additional Projects

Related Resources