K-12 Education During and After the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic was a very difficult time across the nation. Washington was not alone in making emergency changes to its educational system, as other states raced to adjust. Changes including shifting most instruction online and revising school funding models to support that transition. The pandemic’s effect on the delivery of educational services cannot be overstated; it was dramatic for all concerned. Students, their families and their teachers were all challenged by a sudden switch to online education. 

During this major disruption, however, many Washington school districts developed innovative ways to continue learning through a period of disruption. So many aspects of daily life were upended, from workplaces to sports and schoolrooms. Recognizing the frustrating situation, many of the schools highlighted in this performance audit focused on communication and training. They helped parents and teachers work together to deliver the best possible learning experience. 

Read a two-page summary of the report.

Report Number 1033490 Report Credits

Key Results

The coronavirus pandemic closed Washington’s public schools and forced them to find new ways to teach students. In March 2020, the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus prompted Gov. Jay Inslee to close all public schools in the state for the next six weeks — ultimately extending this for the next six months. The decision to close schools prompted a cascade of change and upheaval in the education system.

During the months schools were closed to in-person learning, the state gave school districts great flexibility in how they decided to ensure students had access to instruction. Funding sources and calculations changed significantly during the pandemic, and many districts took advantage of the stop-gap change in funding to develop new or expand existing online schools.

This audit surveyed 11 school districts, as well as Impact Public Schools, which operates four charter schools in Washington. We also spoke with representatives of Educational Service District 113. From their responses and conversations, we crafted a list of creative and nontraditional teaching practices applied over the past three years that might be useful for other educators.

The 25 identified practices fell into five broad categories:

  1. Individualized instruction
  2. Access 
  3. Student and family engagement
  4. Teacher training
  5. Social-emotional needs

Individualized instruction

Some districts added or expanded online schools or alternative learning experience (ALE) programs to provide increased flexibility for students and families. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) reported it approved dozens of new online programs. It recorded 78 in the 2020-21 school year and 57 in the 2021-22 school year. 

Districts that added or expanded online schools said they saw students outperform expectations after the pandemic. One district said it saw less student learning loss than it expected. They also said some students in the new online schools achieved higher scores on academic tests than they had when attending school in person. Districts created new online schools with support from OSPI, federal stimulus money and community partnerships. In addition, some surveyed districts have found ways to continue offering their students the option of online school. They succeeded despite losing the temporary funding they received during the pandemic. Two districts said being able to offer a wide selection of courses was integral to their ongoing success. 

We also learned that several surveyed districts expanded their existing ALE programs. They did so to offer more students the benefits of ALE’s inherent flexibility. In these programs, some or all of the instruction is delivered outside of a regular classroom schedule. Students attend lessons either online or in person.

Finally, apart from expanding online learning or ALE programs, districts seized the opportunity to tailor instruction to meet individual students’ needs and skills. Leading practices say students learn best when instruction is adjusted to their optimal way of learning. Tailored instruction can allow a student more time to absorb course material and review areas as needed. Those who grasp material more quickly can move on to the next lesson. 


When buildings were closed, some school districts ensured students had access to online classes by providing both internet service and IT equipment. The dramatic expansion of online schools and at-home learning after March 2020 meant most students suddenly needed access to a computer or similar device plus access to the internet.

For remote learning to be most effective, leading practice research says all students should have ready access to internet-connected computer equipment. When schools can help students gain access to these tools, they help ensure student learning will not be interrupted by future health emergencies. This is even true for simpler disruptions like snow days.

Several districts described ways they addressed these needs during the pandemic. For example, they took steps to ensure every student had access to a laptop or tablet computer. Yakima School District issued 16,000 laptops to students in two weeks. They began with high school students who were under pressure to meet graduation requirements. The district then went on to issue equipment to younger students.

Districts said it was also important to provide internet access to students. Many used innovative methods to do so. Their strategies included some uncommon partnerships:

  • Working with neighboring businesses to develop a districtwide wireless internet network
  • Obtaining discounted wireless hotspots
  • Working with service providers offer reduced internet charges for families who qualified for free and reduced-price meals

Student, family engagement

Districts made significant efforts to engage students and families. This was crucial due to the rapid pace of change driven by the evolving rules of the pandemic. Leading practice research shows that students with strong family involvement in their education have better educational outcomes. As the pandemic progressed, schools found themselves forced to change how they operated. This meant they had more information than ever to communicate to families. Most in-person gatherings were prohibited, so parents could no longer attend school board meetings or parent-teacher conferences in person as they once did.

Surveyed schools said that they identified several new ways to engage with both students and their families. For example, several districts said that when they held parent-teacher and school board meetings virtually, they saw increased attendance by parents. They have continued the video conference format, and continue to see increased attendance. Districts also increased their efforts to communicate with families in languages other than English. Other districts pursued technical solutions to teaching remote classes. Impact Public Schools, for example, set up online "help desks." This strategy ensured families could get immediate technical support when using unfamiliar computers and software.

Finally, several districts transformed their schedules in order to offer high school students more credits. For example, Bellingham School District set up teaching schedules in focused, four-period blocks of time. Lind-Ritzville reorganized its teaching and term schedules. It transitioned from seven periods a day in semesters to five periods a day in trimesters. Students had fewer transitions and fewer classes to manage, and said they “liked the reduction in periods.”

Teacher training

Like their students, educators also faced a steep learning curve in using new technology and tools needed to teach. Districts pivoted from in-person workshops for teacher training. They also sought new ways to help teachers teach effectively in learning environments they might not be especially familiar with. Leading practice research shows that delivering high-quality remote education requires teachers to be well-versed in specific methods. Online learning and teaching demand a somewhat different skillset than in-person teaching. School districts in our survey used various tools and techniques to help staff be as prepared as possible for the sudden shift to new methods of teaching. 

For example, Yakima focused on teacher effectiveness in online and hybrid class environments. It used federal funds to help pay for trainings that focused on effective teaching techniques in new settings. Monroe School District hired an instructional technology consultant to provide distance-learning trainings. These sessions including strategies to increase student voice and engagement. 

In addition, OSPI and the nine educational service districts (ESDs) offered teachers free, online and asynchronous trainings related to remote learning. These courses also helped instructors make the leap to new styles of teaching and learning.


Social-emotional needs

The pandemic highlighted the role schools play in students’ social and emotional learning. During those years, students struggled with stress, loss and isolation. Leading practices research shows that effective education must recognize and address students’ social and emotional needs. Surveyed districts described a variety of techniques they used to support their students in difficult times.

  • Staff at Monroe School District focused attention on students' social and emotional needs to reduce barriers to learning from pandemic-related trauma.
  • Bellevue School District’s counselors began providing online mental health services. As a result, almost 90 percent of students receiving these services reported improved coping skills. 
  • Elma School District partnered with ESD 113 to set up a school-based health clinic for elementary school students. 

Additionally, the Statewide Behavioral Health COVID Response Project reported that its interventions improved mental and emotional wellness among students it served. These effects included fewer discipline problems, reduced substance use and greater self-awareness, including self-regulation and asking for help. The Association of Educational Service Districts and the University of Washington collaborated to set up this project. It was implemented in 52 districts across the state. 

Systemic barriers to sustaining innovations

Surveyed school districts also described barriers Washington would need to overcome to implement new practices or continue practices put into place during the pandemic. Certain long-standing school practices that were suspended during the height of the pandemic have since returned. These include state requirements, like “seat-time.” This defines the annual number of hours a student must be sitting in the classroom for that student to be funded under basic education funding calculations. Others are simply traditional, like the structure of the school year and school-day schedules. Barriers described include resistance to change and restrictions on actions districts can take due to state requirements.

Smaller school districts struggle to innovate with fewer staff. For example, the work that goes into developing, launching and maintaining new practices and programs usually falls to school administrators. Their role includes ensuring teachers are prepared, families are informed and students are supported as the new program is rolled out in their schools. Small districts that lack support staff to implement new programs find it much harder to introduce and sustain such programs.

Finally, the return to pre-pandemic funding structures has become a barrier to some practices.The methods of calculating funding for online students versus in-person students may see some newly established online courses and programs falter for want of funding. School districts that found it difficult to develop robust online-student enrollment numbers may struggle to maintain the programs. This could be true even if they were well-liked by students and parents during pandemic building closures.

OSPI officials said that opportunities to address some of these barriers exist, both locally and at the state level. The Legislature will likely need to address some issues. These could include questions concerning seat-time funding and the equivalence of online and in-person education. 


We did not make any recommendations specific to the school districts we audited. Nonetheless, we consider the audit results so broadly applicable that it is in the state’s best interest for all districts to consider how they might apply the practices we highlighted. In doing so, districts will need to take into consideration current and future needs and available resources. They will also need to consider the potential effects on students and educators.