By Ashley Simpson Baird, Jamie Fragale, and Dwayne Smith
The disproportionate health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 health pandemic have been widely documented. In Washington, D.C., adult learners suddenly found themselves pivoting to virtual learning while simultaneously navigating heightened concerns about their employment, health, and housing.
In May 2020, adult charter schools in D.C. conducted a survey of learners to understand how the pandemic was impacting them. Results of the May 2020 survey indicated high levels of unemployment, challenges with technology, and a preference for in-person over virtual instruction. In December 2020, another round of the survey was administered to understand how learners were faring seven months later. Survey findings demonstrate that, compared to spring of 2020, adult learners enrolled in the fall of 2020 experienced higher levels of competence with technology, more confidence in supporting children’s education, and higher levels of employment. These findings can inform the future of adult learning and the education sector as a whole in D.C. as it relates to the expansion of hybrid and virtual learning for adult students and enhanced wraparound services for all students.
The eight adult charter schools in D.C. are publicly-funded programs that educate more than 5,000 students annually and offer free workforce credentials, preparation for a high school diploma through the GED and National External Diploma Program (NEDP), English as Second Language (ESL), and U.S. Citizenship courses. In D.C., adult charter schools are part of the city’s public adult education offerings, which also include DCPS Opportunity Academies and community-based organizations. Adult charter schools also work with students to support their full participation in learning by providing social services, counseling, parenting classes, and referrals to partner organizations (e.g., Carlos Rosario International PCS’s Student Services Program).
For more than three decades, adult learners in D.C. have gone on to complete postsecondary education, open businesses, be active in their communities, and increase their economic mobility. According to DCPCSB 2019 school quality reports, 94 percent of adult learners who were employed at the start of the school year retained their jobs or entered post-secondary education and 69 percent of learners who were not employed started working or entered post-secondary education.
The fall survey contained 14 parallel questions to the spring survey, as well as eight new questions. In total, the fall survey had 22 questions, with six additional questions specifically for learners who are also parents. The survey was administered from December 1, 2020, through January 8, 2021, in English, Spanish, French, and Amharic. Schools shared the surveys directly with students via email, text message, and telephone calls where school staff assisted students in completing the survey. At the time of the fall survey, adult charter schools were still engaged in virtual synchronous and asynchronous learning. Some workforce programs also had limited onsite instruction for hands-on skills practice.
The fall survey was sent to 3,649 learners, 1,495 of whom completed it (a 41 percent response rate). This response rate was lower than the spring survey, which had 1,832 responses from 3,486 learners (53 percent). Respondents studied at all eight charter schools and lived in all eight wards of the city, with the highest representation in Ward 4 (23 percent) and Ward 1 (14 percent).
Seventy-four percent of fall respondents had been enrolled in their current school when the pandemic started. Three quarters of respondents identified as female, and the majority (53 percent) were under 35 years old. More than 93 percent of respondents were people of color, including 60 percent Latino and 27 percent Black. Respondents primarily spoke seven home languages – Spanish (53 percent), English (32 percent), Amharic (6 percent), French (3 percent), Arabic (1 percent), Vietnamese (1 percent), and Chinese (0.4 percent). Twenty-four percent of adult learners are working on their high school diploma and 16 percent are enrolled in a workforce training course. Another 56 percent of adult learners are taking ESL classes.
Fall survey respondents were demographically similar to spring survey respondents. The chart below contains comparisons between the two groups in race/ethnicity, age, gender, language, and educational attainment.
Analysis of data across the two surveys reveals ways that learning and life situations of adult learners enrolled in the fall improved compared to adult learners enrolled in the spring, and also identifies persistent challenges. Adult learners enrolled in the fall of 2020 reported better digital literacy skills compared to adult learners enrolled in the spring of 2020. This made a large portion of them more comfortable navigating their own education online, as well as helping their children with remote learning, and even shifted some learners’ preferences toward hybrid and online learning. In that same time, significant non-academic barriers–including lost income, food insecurity, and mental health concerns–necessitated adult charter schools offering a wide range of supports. Specifically, findings are discussed below as they relate to virtual learning and meeting learners’ needs outside of school.
Findings on virtual learning
Access to devices, Wi-Fi, and digital literacy instruction are priorities for adult learners
Immediately following the start of the health emergency, adult charter schools transitioned from an in-person learning environment augmented by digital learning tools to a remote learning environment reliant on digital learning tools, even though 62 percent of learners reported technology challenges (e.g., lack of reliable internet, limited access to a device, or unfamiliarity with technology) that made it difficult to learn from home in the spring. Initially, some learners shared with their schools that they were logging on to classes via mobile phones or sharing devices with their children, which may have limited their ability to fully engage in virtual learning.
To meet learners’ immediate needs, adult charter schools fundraised and reallocated resources to provide laptops and internet hotspots. Briya PCS and Academy of Hope Adult PCS together provided over 1,200 students with laptops, as well as internet access to 370 students.
Schools also launched new offerings to bridge the digital divide, including technology boot camps, help desks, and computer skills courses. By fall 2020, 99 percent of survey respondents said that their ability to use technology had improved (82 percent) or stayed the same (17 percent) since spring 2020. Similarly, the proportion of students who reported technology challenges decreased by 31 percentage points compared to the spring.
Maintaining access to devices and centralizing digital skill-building will be critical to learners’ success in the future. Even while they are physically in school, learners often need strong digital skills to complete the two nontraditional pathways to a high school diploma in D.C. (the GED exam and the National External Diploma Program), which both transitioned to exclusively-online assessment in 2014. Currently, about 24 percent of survey respondents are working on their GED or NEDP. After high school completion, job seekers benefit from digital fluency as well, as fluency is necessary to succeed in high-demand careers such as IT and customer service.
Learners need to acquire their digital skills alongside their academic comprehension, but the cost of individual devices and reliable internet in students’ homes has made acquiring those digital skills difficult. The urgency and demands of the pandemic required adult charter schools to prioritize access to digital tools and center digital skill-building. Maintaining this momentum can benefit learners’ digital literacy beyond the pandemic.
Adult schools and learners have adapted to virtual and hybrid learning
In May 2020, about two months after D.C. schools closed, 44 percent of adult learners indicated that they preferred in-person learning, while only 19 percent indicated a preference for online synchronous learning. By December 2020, these preferences had switched: as shown in the chart below, only 26 percent of fall survey respondents preferred learning in-person (an 18 percentage point decline) while 31 percent indicated a preference for online synchronous learning (a 12 percentage point increase).
This is likely attributable to changes schools made to their delivery of online instruction and learners’ increased comfort with technology. As noted above, 82 percent of learners say their ability to use technology improved during the pandemic. In addition, many learners have expressed an appreciation for the increased flexibility that virtual learning provides, such as eliminating a commute, being able to learn from anywhere there is Wi-Fi, and not needing to secure childcare to study (54 percent of adult learners are also parents of school age children).
Additionally, learners enrolled in the fall had a harder time coordinating school and employment responsibilities compared to learners enrolled in the spring. A larger proportion of learners who were enrolled in the fall indicated that a lack of time (26 percent in the fall, compared to 19 percent in the spring) and conflicts with work schedules (25 percent in the fall, compared to 15 percent in the spring) made it difficult for them to learn at home than in the spring. This may indicate both a gradual return to work and that students may be making difficult choices between education and employment. Most schools are currently considering how they can maintain elements of virtual and hybrid learning for students once they return to in-person learning to maintain flexibility.
Parents’ confidence in supporting their children in school increased
In the fall survey, 54 percent of respondents were parents of school-age children who were also engaging in virtual learning during the pandemic. In both the spring and fall surveys, about one-fifth of learners indicated that facilitating their children’s virtual learning was a concern, presenting new demands on parents’ time and attention as well as requiring adequate access to devices and internet so that multiple family members could learn simultaneously.
Adult charter school leaders indicated that they provided new or additional support to parents during the pandemic through instruction on using online learning applications, facilitating communication with their children’s schools, and establishing a home learning environment and routines. By December, adult learner parents indicated that their confidence in helping their children with virtual learning had either increased (53 percent) or stayed the same (34 percent) since the start of the pandemic.
Survey findings on needs outside of school
Adult learners experienced dramatic financial losses during the pandemic
Many adult learners work in service sector jobs, such as restaurants and custodial services, which were some of the first to be closed during the pandemic. In D.C., workers without a college degree are over four times more likely than those with a college degree to work in the leisure and hospitality industry: 22 percent of workers without a college degree work in this industry, compared to 5 percent of those with a college degree. Leisure and hospitality was the industry with the largest dip in employment in the spring of 2020.
At the time of the spring survey, 40 percent of adult learners had lost their jobs. By the fall survey administration, 36 percent reported that they were unemployed, 51 percent reported losing their job at some point during the pandemic, and an additional 30 percent had suffered a reduction in hours. Collectively, more than 80 percent of students enrolled in the fall had incurred a loss of income during the pandemic. While 15 percent of students who lost their jobs are now again working, it will take a long time to fully rebound economically. Additional education and employment preparation from adult charter schools may improve learners’ employment prospects.
Many adult learners worried about meeting basic needs
In both the spring and fall surveys, an overwhelming majority of learners expressed concerns about their livelihoods. In the fall of 2020, more than 85 percent of learners had concerns around their basic needs including employment, physical health, and housing. The abrupt loss of income was an added stressor for adult learners, many of whom were already facing numerous challenges prior to the pandemic, including paying rent and utilities. For those employed in the service industry, finding new jobs became nearly impossible. According to the Washington D.C. Economic Partnership, the District’s leisure and hospitality sector lost one third of its jobs from 2019 to 2020. Overall, the loss of family income, social distancing policies, and the abrupt shuttering of health services for children may have long-term health implications.
Adult charter schools connected learners to resources to sustain their families
In the fall, 73 percent of learners indicated that their schools helped them meet some or all of their non-academic needs during the pandemic, including emergency financial support and essential goods such as diapers, toiletries, and food staples. The pandemic required schools to deliver more social services than normal, as well. One school started a Wellness Wednesday series on YouTube with topics such as emotional hygiene and establishing new family routines. The school also disseminated information about eating on a budget, coping with grief, and establishing physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual boundaries.
The future of adult education in D.C.
Adult learners have always juggled their schoolwork with other important demands on their time, but the pandemic presented additional complexities. As schools begin to more fully reopen, survey findings reveal that adult learners need their schools to continue to meet them where they are–whether that is physically in the classroom, via remote platforms, or through a hybrid program model.
For schools to do this, there must be policies in place that allow schools to be nimble in order to quickly respond to learners’ needs. For example, during the pandemic, attendance policies supported instructional flexibility for students by giving credit for in-person, hybrid, and virtual synchronous and asynchronous participation. Continuing such policies would give adult learners the opportunity to engage in an educational model that best compliments their complex lives as parents, caretakers, and breadwinners.
Adult learners have indicated that current flexible attendance policies (unlike in-seat requirements for K-12 students) made continuing their education possible. Adult schools will also continue to provide appropriate wraparound supports for learners, just as they did before the pandemic. Finally, even when COVID restrictions lift and remote platforms are not required to be the primary channel for engagement, digital literacy skills should continue to be a central component of academic instruction.
Feature photo courtesy of Briya PCS.
About the Authors
Ashley Simpson Baird, Ph.D. is the founder and principal of Merit Research, Policy, and Evaluation which provides customized, equity-focused solutions for schools and educational non-profits. Formerly, she was a teacher at Briya Public Charter School and Board Chair at The Next Step/el Próximo Paso Public Charter School. Dr. Simpson Baird can be reached at email@example.com.
Jamie Fragale is the Director of Advocacy and Communications at Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School.
Dwayne Smith is the Student Information Systems Specialist at Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter Schools.
Due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, 2019 is the most recent year for which sector-level data are publicly available.
 Survey results reflect self-reported data from adult learners at two distinct time points. The pool of adult learners at each administration likely included some overlap but may also include unique learners as well.
D.C. Policy Center Fellows are independent writers, and we gladly encourage the expression of a variety of perspectives. The views of our Fellows, published here or elsewhere, do not reflect the views of the D.C. Policy Center.