Cover: Teaching and Leading Through a Pandemic

Teaching and Leading Through a Pandemic

Key Findings from the American Educator Panels Spring 2020 COVID-19 Surveys

Published Jun 22, 2020

by Laura S. Hamilton, Julia H. Kaufman, Melissa Kay Diliberti

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Research Questions

  1. What distance learning opportunities were provided to students during school closures?
  2. What are principals' perceptions of school challenges and needs?
  3. To what extent have schools and teachers made contact with families and students?
  4. What trainings have teachers received to support remote instruction, and what are their needs for additional support?
  5. What are principals' priorities and plans for the summer and the next school year?

Educators and students in schools across the United States have faced sweeping, unprecedented changes to teaching and learning because of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, which shuttered school buildings in spring 2020. This Data Note presents selected results on several aspects of schooling, including both teachers' and principals' perspectives, and it examines inequities in approaches and resources for delivering distance learning across schools serving different student populations. Drawing on the RAND Corporation's American Educator Panels, researchers surveyed nationally representative samples of K–12 public school teachers and principals in late April and early May 2020 to document how they delivered instruction and other services, what supports and resources they needed, and their expected priorities and plans for the 2020–2021 school year. Researchers found that educators shifted quickly to distance learning and provided a variety of supports, but they indicated needing additional resources. These resources included access to technology and devices for students, teacher training in remote instruction, strategies for motivating students, ways to address loss of students' hands-on learning opportunities, and strategies to support students' social and emotional learning. Many teachers indicated that they did not receive adequate support for students with disabilities and homeless students, among other groups. Researchers also identified disparities among the kinds of instruction and other resources provided in schools serving different student populations, which suggests that the pandemic will cause existing inequalities to increase. Principals anticipated prioritizing emergency preparedness, student mental health, and recovering from the learning gaps caused by the pandemic.

Key Findings

Educators provided a variety of supports for distance learning, but the pandemic is likely to exacerbate existing inequalities

  • Educators across the country shifted quickly to connect with students and families and support students through distance learning. Teachers and principals both indicated that teachers had received some training to equip them for this work, but they also identified gaps in that training, especially in terms of training to support particular student groups, such as students with disabilities or homeless students.
  • Teachers reported incomplete curriculum coverage, providing more review and less coverage of new content than usual.
  • There were large disparities in students' access to supports for learning — disparities that predated the pandemic and that educators will need to continue to tackle.
  • Principals indicated several needs for support from district leaders, including strategies to address the loss of students' hands-on learning, teacher training on distance learning and technology for students. Teachers particularly expressed a need for ways to motivate and engage students, to address the loss of hands-on learning opportunities, and to assess and support students' social and emotional well-being.
  • School principals reported that several goals will be more important this coming school year than they were during the last year, including emergency preparedness, reducing learning gaps, and addressing students' mental health.


  • Teachers need professional development to help them address the challenges of distance learning, especially teachers who are working with the most vulnerable students.
  • Policymakers and funders will need to address disparities in learning opportunities by ensuring that supports for learning — including internet access and technology as well as classroom materials to promote academic, social, and emotional learning — are provided to the students who need them most when the next school year begins.
  • As it is likely that some form of distance learning will continue, educators need resources and strategies to help students stay motivated and engaged while they are learning remotely, as well as guidance to provide students with hands-on learning opportunities (e.g., labs, internships) and to assess and support students' social and emotional learning.
  • Both principals and teachers need better ways to contact students and families. School and district emergency plans should include efforts to ensure they have contact information for all students and families.
  • The pandemic has caused principals to reprioritize goals and tasks. District leaders should be prepared to help them as they shift to plan for emergencies, address learning gaps, and deal with student mental health issues that might be exacerbated by the pandemic's effects.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was conducted by RAND Education and Labor and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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