Reader Survey

The Ongoing Impact of COVID-19 Policy in Education

It’s no stretch to say that the public policy response to COVID-19 has changed and will continue to change every aspect of education in K–12 and higher education for the foreseeable future.

What once seemed a short-term emergency akin to “snow days” has grown beyond most people’s wildest fears. Every state in the nation shut down its K–12 schools last spring, and, with the exception of one state (Montana), they all stayed closed through the end of the school year. Colleges and universities closed one by one. Some reopened only to have to close again weeks later.

We polled our readership to learn of the experiences taking place across the nation and get a glimpse of what’s being planned going into the spring 2021 semester and beyond. We heard from facilities planners/managers, administrators, information technology professionals, faculty, policymakers, architects, maintenance professionals and engineers from around the country.

The impact on facilities planning, design and management has been profound. “We were not prepared for anything like this,” one K–12 education respondent told us. “We’re doing it all on our own; every school is doing something different,” said another. “The lack of guidance and support from the national level is appalling.” One higher education respondent said, “[Campus] will never fully reopen in the environment that we once knew. COVID-19 has changed the very face of how instruction is given.”

reader survey 

Photo © Panchenko Vladimir

Delivering Instruction in the Fall

Overall, in both K–12 and higher education, the vast majority of respondents reported that their institutions have been using a hybrid model of instruction — about 70 percent in K–12 education and 83.5 percent in higher education. All-online instruction was the second-most-popular response, at 16.4 percent in K–12 and 12.6 percent in higher education. In K–12, about 7 percent reported they were doing in-person instruction, compared with less than 1 percent in higher education.

The remainder were doing variations — for example, mixed by grade level or offering students the choice of either all online or all in-person instruction. Some switched models partway through the semester.

“We are primarily teaching online courses, no more than 25 percent face-to-face, and most of those we are offering an option to participate via zoom,” said one respondent in the higher ed space. “Most of our students have obeyed the rules of face masks and social distancing. We’ve been having a rolling 14-day average of between five and 14 infections, although we are relying on self-reporting because we are not testing. Our IT department has offered students resources for those with poor or no Internet connections or who lack cameras on their home computers. We are doing well.” (See Figures 1 and 2)

instructional delivery (K-12)

instructional delivery (higher ed)

Remote Learning

Among those whose institutions are offering remote instruction, most rated the management of that instruction positively. In K–12, more than 90 percent of respondents said their institutions were doing fairly well, well or extremely well at handling remote instruction. Just 6 percent said they were doing poorly. The remainder were either undecided or deferential given the circumstances. One resspondent said their institution was doing “as best as can be expected under crazy circumstances.”

In higher education, more than 94 percent said their institutions were doing fairly well, well or extremely well. Just 4 percent said they were doing poorly. Another small percentage reported mixed feelings. (See Figures 3 and 4)

quality of remote instruction (K-12)

quality of remote instruction (higher ed)

Facilities & Infrastructure

When it comes to facilities, most in K–12 and higher education said that their existing facilities are adequate for delivering in-person instruction — 70 percent in K–12 and nearly 80 percent in higher ed.

The biggest complaints about their schools’ facilities among K–12 respondents were:

  • The size of the classrooms;
  • The number of classrooms;
  • Difficulty with social distancing;
  • Difficulty cleaning or finding cleaning products;
  • Lack of technology resources;
  • Busing; and
  • Ventilation.

“The classroom is not big enough for social distancing, and we do not have resources for everyone to have all they need without sharing,” according to one respondent in K–12.

Some offered the caveat that, while facilities are adequate now, they would not be as more students begin attending in-person.

On the technology front, home internet access is somewhat an issue for K–12, although only 9.5 percent characterized it as a major problem affecting a large percentage of students. A third characterized it as a moderate problem affecting a small but substantial percentage of students. Most (52 percent) said it was a minor problem affecting a small percentage of students. Six percent said it was no problem at all.

At the time of the survey (October/November 2020), 18 percent of K–12 respondents reported that their institution was forced to close at least once during the fall semester owing to COVID-19 cases. (See Figures 5 and 6)

facilities (K-12)

technology (K-12)

In higher education, where nearly 80 percent of respondents said their facilities were adequate, the most significant problems among respondents were space and technology infrastructure. Some, whose students had not all returned to class at the time of the survey, worried that facilities would be inadequate but couldn’t be sure at the time.

As far as technology is concerned, home internet access was even less of an issue in higher ed than in K–12. More than twice as many respondents (12.75 percent in higher ed versus 6 percent in K–12) indicated that home internet access was not an issue at all. The majority (51 percent) said it was a minor problem affecting few students. About 27 percent said it was a moderate problem affecting a small but substantial percentage of students. And nearly 9 percent said it was a major issue affecting a large percentage of students.

One respondent described their approach to adapting existing facilities to the needs of the pandemic: “We have limited in person classes — mainly those requiring hands-on instruction. We have established procedures for cleaning between classes and have scheduled breaks between classes to allow additional cleaning. We have deployed extensive hand sanitizing and mask stations and have marked public areas thoroughly for social distancing.” (See Figures 7 and 8)

facilities (higher ed)

technology (higher ed)

Takeaways, Lessons Learned & Looking Forward

We asked our audience the following open-ended question: “What has been the biggest takeaway you’ve learned so far with regard to school reopening?” Responses to that question were, to say the least, scattered all over the board. A few trends emerged from their responses, however.

Among those who were strong on remote learning prior to the pandemic, the perception was that remote was working well for students and would continue to grow in the future. But among those who were primarily face-to-face prior to the pandemic, remote learning was perceived as a poor substitute for in-person instruction.

There was widespread recognition of the need for flexibility and patience.

Technology proved to be a huge help to education professionals, although many reported that they needed more access to technology tools. In fact, when asked what were the most helpful tools used this fall semester, digital tools were by far the most frequently lauded. Among the most frequently cited helpful tools were:

  • Zoom;
  • Google Classroom;
  • Microsoft Teams;
  • Learning management systems such as Blackboard and Canvas;
  • Laptops and Chromebooks;
  • WebEx; and
  • Screencastify.

Of non-digital tools, general cleaning products, masks and electrostatic sprayers were most frequently cited.

Looking ahead to procedures for the spring, in both K–12 and higher education, respondents generally agreed that there will be a continued emphasis on online learning, continued social distancing and ongoing rigorous cleaning procedures.

By far, however, the most popular response to the question of what new procedures will be implemented in spring was “not sure.”

When asked what the most significant challenges schools, colleges and universities still face, the most common responses across both K–12 and higher ed were:

  • Shortage of teachers and staff;
  • Class size;
  • The inadequacy of remote learning versus face-to-face;
  • Adherence to safety procedures, such as wearing masks continually and maintaining physical distance;
  • Student disengagement with two commonly cited causes: the remote learning environment and, in the case of in-person instruction, the wearing of masks;
  • Lack of funding; and
  • Lack of leadership.

Several survey participants lamented the challenges of overwork and mental and physical strain in these circumstances. “Educators have put everything on the line,” one K-12 respondent said. “Our families, our mental and physical health ... have all been impacted. Many of us are so exhausted, beaten down and frustrated that we will leave the profession prematurely.”

Equitable access to technology was also widely cited as a major challenge by several respondents. “We wouldn’t be comfortable teaching in school if one child is left in the hallway and can’t access the class, but when we go virtual there doesn’t seem to be the same urgency when students are locked out of classes due to lack of devices or not having the wherewithal to use the devices they have,” one K-12 respondent noted.

The keys to success this spring? According to many: budgeting for additional technology, providing internet access for those who need it and providing training to faculty and staff in the technologies they need to deliver instruction in remote and hybrid learning environments.


The survey was conducted among Spaces4Learning readers online over a three-week period in late October through early November. Two-hundred twenty-two surveys were completed — 104 from higher education, 118 from K–12.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Spaces4Learning.