PPIC Logo Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Report · April 2021

Distance Learning Strategies in California Schools


Niu Gao, Laura Hill, and Julien Lafortune

This research was supported with funding from the Sobrato Family Foundation.

A year of distance learning under COVID-19 has fueled growing concerns about the academic progress and social and emotional health of children. In particular, worries increased around how the pandemic has affected high-need and underserved students, including English Learners and children with disabilities, children in foster care and from low-income families. Distance learning has further revealed how unevenly educational resources are distributed-from access to internet and devices, to teacher instruction and parental involvement-a situation that may expand California’s longstanding racial and socioeconomic divides. We are seeing significant learning loss in both English language arts and math, with earlier grades most affected-and with Black students, low-income students, and English Learners falling behind more.

In this report, we share the results of our survey of California school districts and their approaches to student learning during the pandemic-whether in-person, hybrid, or virtual. We supplement these survey data with Learning Continuity and Attendance Plans (LCPs) from respondent districts and with a US Census survey of California households during the pandemic. In particular, our analyses explore how districts are serving high-need and underserved populations. We find that:

  • The digital divide persists. A third of low-income students still do not have reliable internet at home. The vast majority of districts reported technology as a priority and spent more on devices and home internet. As a result, the share of adequate device access increased from 67 to 82 percent from spring to fall 2020.
  • In-person instruction is not equitably distributed. High-poverty districts and those with high shares of Black and Latino students were less likely to be physically open in the first semester of 2020-21. Districts with lower test scores before the pandemic were less likely to offer in-person instruction.
  • Most districts reported improvements in distance learning since spring 2020. In contrast to spring, 76 percent of districts require at least half of remote instruction to be live. Most provide 3 to 6 hours of instruction per day, an improvement from spring.
  • Extended learning, tutoring, and social-emotional learning are among common programs to address learning loss. Most (68%) districts used assessments to identify learning gaps, develop intervention programs, and inform teacher instruction. Districts as also offered evening, weekend, and summer classes.
  • Learning loss strategies vary by type of district. Seventy-three percent of high-Black/Latino districts provided supplemental curriculum and instructional materials; 61 percent of high-poverty districts provided programs to address mental health and improve social emotional learning; and 50 percent of high-Black/Latino districts provided tutoring programs.
  • Most districts now provide extra resources to support English Learners and students with disabilities. Strategies to support English Learners include designated English language development classes, engaging parents, and ensuring access to curriculum and supplemental learning programs. Support for students with disabilities centers on engaging families to review individual education plans (IEPs), update goals, and provide accommodations and individualized services.
  • Federal support is critical to finance increased expenditures due to COVID-19. The vast majority of districts report spending more on technology and school safety, and other major expenditures. Much of this excess spending was made possible through direct federal support, including the $4.5 billion CARES Act.

The full impact of the pandemic on student learning will take years to repair; schools need to support students through the pandemic and beyond to address the on-going impact of COVID-19 disruptions. As policymakers develop strategies to address learning loss in the short and long term they should focus on sustained state and federal support, investments in broadband, prioritizing in-person instruction for high-need students, and expanding funding and services around mental health.


COVID-19 Health & Safety Net K–12 Education Population