Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Measuring In-Person Learning During the Pandemic

Some of the most consequential COVID-19-related decisions for public education were those that modified how much in-person learning students received during the 2020-2021 school year. As part of an IES-funded research project in collaboration with the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) on COVID’s impact on public education in Virginia, researchers at the University of Virginia (UVA) collected data to determine how much in-person learning students in each grade in each division (what Virginia calls its school districts) were offered over the year. In this guest blog, Erica Sachs, an IES predoctoral fellow at UVA, shares brief insights into this work.

Our Process

COVID-19 has caused uncertainty and disruptions in public education for nearly three years. The purpose of the IES-funded study is to describe how Virginia’s response to COVID-19 may have influenced access to instructional opportunities and equity in student outcomes over multiple time periods. This project is a key source of information for the VDOE and Virginia schools’ recovery efforts. An important first step of this work was to uncover how the decisions divisions made impacted student experiences during the 2020-21 school year. This blog focuses on the processes that were undertaken to identify how much in-person learning students could access.

During 2020-21, students were offered school in three learning modalities: fully remote (no in-person learning), fully in-person (only in-person learning), and hybrid (all students could access some in-person learning). Hybrid learning often occurred when schools split a grade into groups and assigned attendance days to each group. For the purposes of the project, we used the term “attendance rotations” to identify whether and which student group(s) could access in-person school on each day of the week. Each attendance rotation is associated with a learning modality.

Most divisions posted information about learning modality and attendance rotations on their official websites, social media, or board meeting documents. In June and July of 2021, our team painstakingly scoured these sites and collected detailed data on the learning modality and attendance rotations of every grade in every division on every day of the school year. We used these data to create a division-by-grade-by-day dataset.

A More Precise Measure of In-Person Learning

An initial examination of the dataset revealed that the commonly used approach of characterizing student experiences by time in each modality masked potentially important variations in the amount of in-person learning accessible in the hybrid modality. For instance, a division could offer one or four days of in-person learning per week, and both would be considered hybrid. To supplement the modality approach, we created a more precise measure of in-person learning using the existing data on attendance rotations. The new variable counts all in-person learning opportunities across the hybrid and fully in-person modalities, and, therefore, captures the variation obscured in the modality-only approach. To illustrate, when looking only at the time in each modality, just 6.7% of the average student’s school year was in the fully in-person modality. However, using the attendance rotations data revealed that the average student had access to in-person learning for one-third of their school year.

Lessons Learned

One of the biggest lessons I learned working on this project was that we drastically underestimated the scope of the data collection and data management undertaking. I hope that sharing some of the lessons I learned will help others doing similar work.

  • Clearly define terminology and keep records of all decisions with examples in a shared file. It will help prevent confusion and resolve disagreements within the team or with partners. Research on COVID-19 in education was relatively new when we started this work. We encountered two terminology-related issues. First, sources used the same term for different concepts, and second, sources used different terms for the same concept. For instance, the VDOE’s definition of the “in-person modality” required four or more days of access to in-person learning weekly, but our team classified four days of access as hybrid because we define “fully in-person modality” as five days of access to in-person learning weekly. Without agreed-upon definitions, people could categorize the same school week under different modalities. Repeated confusion in discussions necessitated a long meeting to hash out definitions, examples, and non-examples of each term and compile them in an organized file.
  • Retroactively collecting data from documents can be difficult if divisions have removed information from their web pages. We found several sources especially helpful in our data collection, including the Wayback Machine, a digital archive of the internet, to access archived division web pages, school board records, including the agenda, meeting minutes, or presentation materials, and announcements or letters to families via divisions’ Facebook or Twitter accounts.
  • To precisely estimate in-person learning across the year, collect data at the division-by-grade-by-day level. Divisions sometimes changed attendance rotations midweek, and the timing of these changes often differed across grades. Consequently, we found that collecting data at the day level was critical to capture all rotation changes and accurately estimate the amount of in-person learning divisions offered students.

What’s Next?

The research brief summarizing our findings can be downloaded from the EdPolicyWorks website. Our team is currently using the in-person learning data as a key measure of division operations during the reopening year to explore how division operations may have varied depending on division characteristics, such as access to high-speed broadband. Additionally, we will leverage the in-person learning metric to examine COVID’s impact on student and teacher outcomes and assess whether trends differed by the amount of in-person learning divisions offered students.

Erica N. Sachs is an MPP/PhD Student, IES Pre-doctoral Fellow, & Graduate Research Assistant at UVA’s EdPolicyWorks.

This blog was produced by Helyn Kim (, Program Officer, NCER.

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