Landscape of student engagement during the pandemic

July 06, 2021
  • Yanesia Norris
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Photo: DCPCSB (source)

One year after schools physically closed on March 16, 2020,[1] an estimated 88 percent of students in the District of Columbia were still learning from home[2], as most programs for students in kindergarten to grade 12 remained virtual through the end of the fall 2020 semester and start of the spring 2021 semester.[3] Postsecondary students attending school in D.C. were also likely to be learning virtually during the pandemic: in the fall of 2020, five of the eight major universities located in D.C. planned for all-remote instruction and three planned to host most courses online.[7] In this period of extreme disruption to schools, what did engagement with students and access to learning look like during this time in D.C.?

School in D.C. has been dramatically different since March of 2020, and with most learning taking place in private spaces, it is more difficult to understand the student experience. To get a better sense of what learning has been like, this analysis uses data from the Household Pulse Survey, which is disseminated online by the U.S. Census Bureau to study the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on employment, food, health, and education for families across the country. Using the Household Pulse Survey data from April 23, 2020 to January 18, 2021[8] this analysis details schooling experiences at home and reveals ways in which the pandemic has impacted postsecondary plans. It highlights four specific time periods covered by the survey: (i) April 23-May 5, 2020–the beginning of physical school closures during the spring of 2020; (ii) May 21-May 26, 2020- the end of the school year in 2020; (iii) September 2-September 14, 2020–the beginning of the school year in the fall of 2020; and (iv) January 6-January 18, 2021–a midyear update on the 2020-21 school year.

While the Household Pulse Survey data for D.C. are not detailed enough to present findings by race and ethnicity, the overall findings for kindergarten through grade 12 education likely represent experiences for students of color, as students of color make up the majority of the student population. Black students are the largest student population group at 65 percent of all students in the 2020-21 school year.[9] In contrast, white students represent the largest group of undergraduate and graduate students living in D.C. at 44 percent, and Black students are the next largest group at 34 percent – postsecondary findings likely reflect experiences of both Black and white students.

To help inform strategies for recovery post-COVID-19, this article will discuss the time spent on home education, computer and internet availability, and postsecondary experiences during the pandemic by students from kindergarten to grade 12 and students who attend various types of postsecondary institutions.

Time spent on home-based education in spring 2020

In the spring of 2020, virtual learning required many families of D.C. students to dedicate time to ensure that students (especially at younger ages) were engaging successfully in school.[10] Distance learning involved scheduled times for students to engage in live virtual contact with teachers, synchronously, and times where students are assigned virtual assignments to do on their own, asynchronously. A month into virtual learning in late April 2020, kindergarten to grade 12 families reported helping their students in D.C.’s public schools and surrounding private schools by spending an average of 14.2 hours a week on education at home (2.8 hours per weekday). By the last week of the 2019-20 school year, families were spending on average 11.6 hours on educational activities (18 percent less than the start of distance learning).[11]

Computer and internet availability in spring 2020, fall 2020, and winter 2021

Before the pandemic, approximately 24 percent of children in D.C., and 37 percent of children in Wards 7 and 8, lacked access to broadband internet. This disparity is especially important because Wards 7 and 8 have 42 percent of the students in D.C.[12] and the lowest per capita income.[13] As such, families had fewer resources to ensure that students have internet access and devices. For students who may not have had a device or internet always available for educational purposes, it was very difficult to fully participate in distance learning.[14] Students could have experienced difficulties streaming videos or trouble with video calls, not being able to access certain websites that require a computer over mobile access, or not being able to complete online tests, quizzes, or assignments.[15]

The D.C. government and individual schools made efforts during the pandemic to eliminate the limitations the digital divide placed on students’ academic success. For example, the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) and DCPS conducted surveys to assess technology needs going into the fall of 2020.[16] Not all students needed devices: Some schools already had a 1:1 device ratio before the pandemic, and some students and families already had computers and internet access that met school requirements. This allowed both the DME and DCPS to focus on providing these things for students who needed them most. In April 2020, about 63 percent of students always had a device available for educational purposes, and by January 2021, 87 percent of students always had a device available for school. By January 2021, 76 percent of students had internet access always available as opposed to 68 percent in April of 2020, shown in the chart below.

Part of this increase in coverage was due to schools that provided devices. The percentage of students who primarily used a school-provided device for educational purposes increased from 37 percent in April 2020 to 68 percent by January 2021. The drop in school provided device use between May and September could be explained by schools closing over the summer.

Postsecondary education and the pandemic

In 2019, there were approximately 70,000 D.C. residents working towards a bachelor’s degree or graduate school in D.C.[17] For context, very few of these students graduated from D.C.’s high schools. In 2019, 57.2 percent of D.C.’s high school graduates continued on to postsecondary regardless of the location, with approximately 20 percent attending postsecondary in D.C.[18] At the beginning of fall 2020, the largest share (31 percent) of the total population planning to take classes from a post high school institution were enrolled in Bachelor’s degree programs, and 24 percent of students were enrolled in graduate programs. The other 45 percent of students were enrolled in Associate’s, certificate or credential programs, or taking classes that do not go towards any credential.

In September of 2020, when the majority of postsecondary learning in D.C. was likely to be remote, 90 percent of students had made changes to their plans for the fall. By January of 2021, changes were less likely with 65 percent of students changing their plans for fall classes, and this percentage lowered to 60 percent in May of 2021. As postsecondary programs’ approaches to learning during the pandemic became more solidified and, in some cases, involved more in-person learning, fewer students changed their plans to attend in D.C.

In the fall of 2020, 40 percent of students who made changes to their educational plans did so because their institution changed the content or format of classes. By January 2021, only 26 percent of students changed their plans because of changes to the format of courses their institution was offering. Additionally, in September of 2020, 14 percent of students could not afford to pay for classes and made changes to their plans because of the transition. By January of 2021, more students (36 percent) stated they were not able to pay for classes due to changes in income, which could be related to an increase in unemployment and poverty, especially for families struggling economically already.[19] Format of classes and ability to pay have had an impact on the decisions students have had to make about school, including whether to pursue it altogether.


Distance learning in D.C. required universal digital access and increased family time commitments toward education, especially at the start of the pandemic. Postsecondary students in D.C. were also likely to change or cancel their plans to continue their education. There could be a silver lining: Updated technology skills and better access to high speed internet have a long term impact for students’ skills to be more aligned with the growing technological demands of society.[20] More than 8 in 10 jobs now require digital skills, according to a report by the National Skills Coalition.[21] Exposure to certain aspects of technology will help to adequately prepare students for postsecondary education or career, and the pandemic has elevated the need for digital literacy.

However, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted students and has influenced their educational decisions. Schools, just as they have been doing during the pandemic, must take extra measures to meet students where they are. These students have experienced so much during the pandemic and will return to school this fall as different students than they were in March of 2020.[22] Shifts in how schools plan for course enrollment, academic supports, technology access and usage, and overall student to student interaction may be necessary for student success this school year and beyond.


Yanesia Norris

Wilkes Scholar
D.C. Policy Center

Yanesia Norris is a researcher currently engaged in data analysis at a District public charter school. Her professional interests include education and education policy, and the new “normal” when the COVID-19 pandemic is over. She is passionate about education and education policy, specifically the way in which educational inequity most impacts Black girls. As part of our Education Policy Initiative, Ms. Norris’s work as a Wilkes Scholar will focus on risk factors that might make children in D.C. more vulnerable to adverse impacts from COVID-19.

About Wilkes Fellows & Scholars

The Wilkes Fellowship and Scholars program provides resources to young researchers in support of the D.C. Policy Center’s mission of producing objective, targeted, and high-quality data analyses to support robust and productive policy debate in the District of Columbia. The Wilkes Fellowship and Scholars program is endowed by gifts from The Wilkes Company and Quadrangle Development Corporation.

D.C. Policy Center contributors are independent writers, and we gladly encourage the expression of a variety of perspectives. The views of our contributors, published here or elsewhere, do not reflect the views of the D.C. Policy Center.


[1] D.C. Policy Center. 2021. “State of D.C. Schools, 2019-2020.” D.C. Policy Center. Available at:

[2] Rosenblum, I. 2021. “D.C. Assessment Response Letter.” United States Department of Education. Available at:

[3] ibid.

[7] Renton, B. 2020. “Reversals in Colleges’ Fall 2020 Reopening Plans.” Inside Higher Ed. Available at:

[8] Data were collected in phases. Phase 1 of the Household Pulse Survey was collected and disseminated on a weekly basis. Phases 2 and 3 had two-week collection and dissemination periods, and Phase 3.1 continues this two-week collection and dissemination approach. The data in this analysis covers phases 1 through 3.

[9] Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME). 2021. “EdScape.” Available at:

[10] D.C. Policy Center. 2021. “State of D.C. Schools, 2019-2020.” Available at:

[11] Data was not collected in the 2020-2021 school year.

[12] Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME). 2021. “EdScape: Population and Where Public School Students Live.” Available at:

[13] Norris, Y. 2021. “Economic characteristics across D.C., students, and COVID-19.” D.C. Policy Center. Available at:

[14] D.C. Policy Center. 2021. “State of D.C. Schools, 2019-2020.” D.C. Policy Center. Available at:

[15] Lewis, M. K., Jim Soland, Beth Tarasawa, Angela Johnson, Erik Ruzek, and Karyn. 2020. “How is COVID-19 affecting student learning?” Brookings. Available at:

[16] Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education. 2020. “Edsight – Ensuring Devices for Learning at Home During Coronavirus.” Available at:

[17] United States Census Bureau. 2021. “School Enrollment.” Available at:

[18] Coffin, C. 2020. “Where D.C.’s former students attend postsecondary.” D.C. Policy Center. Available at:

[19] Norris, Y. 2021. “Economic characteristics across D.C., students, and COVID-19.” D.C. Policy Center. Available at:

[20] ibid.

[21]Bergson-Shilcock, A. 2020. “The New Landscape of Digital Literacy.” National Skills Coalition. Available at:

[22] Lewis, M. K., Jim Soland, Beth Tarasawa, Angela Johnson, Erik Ruzek, and Karyn. 2020. “How is COVID-19 affecting student learning?” Brookings. Available at: