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A Year of COVID-19: What It Looked Like for Schools

A Timeline
By Education Week Staff — March 04, 2021 13 min read
School & District Management Interactive

A Year of COVID-19: What It Looked Like for Schools

A Timeline
By Education Week Staff — March 04, 2021 13 min read
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It started with the closure of a single high school in Washington state on Feb. 27, 2020.

A school employee’s relative had gotten sick and tested positive for the coronavirus. The school underwent a deep cleaning and reopened two days later.

One month later, nearly every school building in the United States was shut down, an unfathomable moment. Schools scrambled to stand up a remote learning program—some virtual, some by passing out packets of learning materials.

Most of us thought this disruption would last a few weeks, maybe a month.

Now, one year in, most of America’s schoolchildren still are not back in classrooms full-time, learning from teachers standing in front of them.

From the arrival of the coronavirus in the U.S. to the growing wave of teachers receiving their first doses of a vaccine, here’s a look at how a full year of living and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded.

Jan. 29, 2020: First U.S. cases emerge

There had only been five confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. when Education Week first reported on a handful of schools that were beginning to take precautions to limit their exposure to the virus.

Mid-February: Temporary school closures

Individual schools and districts begin temporary closings of a few days to allow for cleaning of their school buildings. Closings were concentrated in Washington state and New York.

Feb. 25: A CDC warning for schools

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns schools that they need to prepare for the coronavirus. “You should ask your children’s schools about their plans for school dismissals or school closures,” said Nancy Messonnier, a director at the CDC. “Ask about plans for teleschool.”

Feb. 27: Coronavirus scare prompts a school to shut down

The first school shuts down because of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Bothell High School in Washington state closes for two days for disinfection after an employee’s relative gets sick and is tested for the coronavirus.

A school janitor opens the door to a staff room inside Bothell High School, in the Northshore school district in Bothell, Wash.

March 3: Schools balance closure with disruption

Dr. Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director at the CDC, tells lawmakers at a Senate committee hearing that while federal agencies provide “guidance” on this issue, ultimately the decisions about things like school closures are made at the local level. “You have this balance between, the earlier you act the more impact it can have in slowing the spread, and the enormous disruption we see with school closures,” she says.

March 5: Shift to distance learning begins

The shift to remote learning begins with the 24,000-student Northshore district in Washington state announcing that it will close and shift to online learning for up to 14 days. It’s the first real test of prolonged distance learning to rise out of the arrival of COVID-19 in American communities. Many districts won’t be ready.

March 11: Pandemic declared

The World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a pandemic.

March 11: School district closures compound

By this time, more than 1 million students have been impacted by school closures, a number that would continue to grow. Here’s a look at students impacted:

March 12: The first state closes schools

Ohio becomes the first state to announce a statewide closing. “We have a responsibility to save lives,” Gov. Mike DeWine says on Twitter. “We could have waited to close schools, but based on advice from health experts, this is the time to do it.” It only takes one day for 15 other states to follow.

Mid-March: Schools keep essential services going

Schools scramble to provide essential services amid closures. “Many families rely on the breakfast and lunch that’s provided at school,” says Christy Fiala, the executive director of the Fremont Area United Way in Fremont, Neb. “Making sure that when schools close unexpectedly that [families have] access to food is important.”

While their schools are shut down, children and families in Anne Arundel County, Md., received food through a special program.

March 16: 27 states and territories close their schools

At this point, 27 states and territories have issued orders or recommendations that all public schools cease in-person instruction and close school buildings. Here’s what those school closures looked like over time:

March 16: Most students impacted

By this time, more than half of all students in the U.S. have been impacted by school closures.

March 17: Kansas: students aren’t coming back this year

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announces that schools will not reopen during the 2019-20 school year. “The steps we’re announcing today will create the space we need at the state level ... so that we can get ahead of this threat and limit its long-term impact,” Kelly says. Kansas is the first state to close for the rest of the academic year. Many other states soon follow suit.

March 20: Schools begin to feel the loss

“She was really a bright star. She had this passion.” —Ernest Logan, the president of the American Federation of School Administrators, describing Dez-Ann Romain, a Brooklyn principal who died at the age of 36 from COVID-19.

Dez-Ann Romain was the principal of the Brooklyn Democracy Academy in New York, a school for students who had fallen behind in earning high school credits. She’s believed to be one of the first K-12 educators to die from COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

March 25: All U.S. public school buildings are closed

Idaho and The Department of Defense Education Activity are the last to close all their schools.

April 8: Teacher morale plummets

On March 25, 56 percent of teachers in a nationally representative survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center said that their morale level is lower than prior to the coronavirus pandemic. By April 8, that number will reach 66 percent.

April 17: More states close schools for the academic year

More than half of all U.S. public school students now are shut out of their buildings by the COVID-19 pandemic for the rest of the 2019-20 school year.


May 6: Nearly all states close schools for the academic year

Maryland becomes the last state to announce that none of its schools would reopen for the 2019-20 school year. Only two states (Wyoming and Montana) did not close their schools for the remainder of the year.

May 7: Teachers face a dilemma over health

“Most teachers care about the kids and their learning—this is a huge priority for us, but we’re also individuals and have our own health concerns. We didn’t sign up to be nurses on the front lines.” —Dawn, a math teacher with asthma, on the dilemma facing teachers who are at higher risk of COVID-19.

May 7: Remote learning becomes commonplace

By early May, 80 percent of teachers report interacting with the majority of their students daily or weekly.

May 7: Remote learning is already exhausting teachers

“I probably send 500 emails a week right now, and I have a headache every day by 4 p.m. from staring into my computer screen. But I am doing my best—we all are—and that is all anyone can ask.” —Katie Kenahan, a math department coordinator and 8th grade teacher in East Providence, R.I., describing her remote-teaching experience.

May 19: Students start to really miss school

“She’s like, it’s silly but I miss the school mashed potatoes."—Ampy Moreno, a mother from Union, N.J., describing her daughter’s experience adapting to remote learning.

May 25: A reckoning over racial justice

A police officer kills George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, setting off a tidal wave of protest across the country against police brutality. Students are among those who take to the streets, and some see parallels in the inequalities that people of color face in the greater world within their own school buildings. Teachers and district leaders struggle to respond to one crisis on top of another, figuring out how to discuss the protests with their communities virtually.

June: Student mental health deteriorates

By the summer, it’s clear that the pandemic has already affected students’ mental health. Surveys show that kids are growing depressed and disconnected from school, and pandemic-related youth suicides send communities reeling. The problems will continue into fall and winter, as students continue to say that online learning is worse than going to school in person.

June: Pandemic learning exacerbates the ‘digital divide’

A Common Sense Media report highlights the scale of the much-discussed but difficult to quantify “digital divide”: as many as 16 million K-12 students and 400,000 teachers prior to the pandemic weren’t adequately connected at home for remote learning. Education advocates have been raising concerns about the digital divide for years, but the pandemic made it impossible to ignore, and efforts to get students connected have become widespread in the ensuing months.

July 7: Trump administration makes the case to reopen schools

President Trump hosts a White House summit featuring Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos decrying remote learning as inherently inferior to in-person instruction, and urging schools nationwide to fully reopen buildings as soon as possible. The comments mark a striking reversal of DeVos’ longstanding support for online learning and innovation in K-12 schools. A wide range of district leaders, teachers, and lawmakers balk at the Trump administration’s position, arguing that the federal government’s lack of clear public health guidance and investment in robust mitigation strategies made full-fledged in-person learning inherently unsafe.

In the internet age, the tendency to equate ‘education’ with ‘specific school buildings’ is going to be greatly diminished.

July 28: Teachers, unions push back

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten says teacher strikes are an option to keep schools from reopening without what the union considers to be adequate safety measures in place. Later that day, Dr. Anthony Fauci tells teachers during a virtual town hall that they will be “part of the experiment” in reopening schools. Teachers are outraged, saying they didn’t sign up to be part of such an experiment.

Summer 2020: Parents left with few options

Anxious parents, worried that they may be looking at more months of remote learning without childcare options, start to form “learning pods.” The groups bring some certainty and relief to families unsure if their schools are going to open in person in the fall, but they also raise equity concerns: rich, white families will buy opportunities that low-income families and families of color won’t have access to.

Fall 2020: Back to school, but not really

Many parents and educators had hoped in the spring that the COVID-19 threat would diminish enough during the summer that school buildings could safely reopen. Instead, school leaders began acknowledging the reality that high levels of community spread would force many school buildings to remain closed as the new school year began.

Education Week tracked state decisions on opening and closing physical school buildings. At the start of the 2020-21 school year, 4 states required in-person instruction to be available in all or some grades.

And 74% of the 100 largest school districts chose remote learning only as their back-to-school instructional model, affecting over 9 million students.


September 23: At least 400 educators lost

Six months since the first known K-12 educator succumbed to the virus, at least 400 teachers, principals, bus drivers, custodians, paraprofessionals, coaches, superintendents, and other staff members have been lost to the pandemic.

October: Hybrid learning dominates

The majority of U.S. school districts are in hybrid learning mode, with a mixture of in-person and remote learning. The approaches to hybrid learning vary widely. Some schools allow students to choose between full-time in-person and full-time remote instruction. Some schools welcome groups of students in shifts two or three days a week. Even for school buildings with open doors, many students opt to stay home full-time and learn online, sometimes from a teacher who is in the physical classroom juggling in-person and remote students and navigating unusually large class sizes.

Late October: Educator morale is at its lowest point

Teacher, administrator, and hourly employee morale hit their lowest points since the EdWeek Research Center first started tracking this metric on March 25.

November 2: Research supports safe reopening

As evidence mounts showing that schools can operate safely with vigilant mitigation measures, pressure to reopen builds outside the political arena with leading public health experts like Dr. Ashish Jha saying “schools need to be bolder.”

November 7: Joe Biden elected president

Democrat Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump to become the 46th president of the United States.

Election 2020 Florida Voting 20308480211787

“Everyone wants our schools to reopen,” Biden had said while campaigning. “The question is how to make it safe, how to make it stick. Forcing educators and students back into the classroom in areas where the infection rate is going up or remaining very high is just plain dangerous.”

November: A teacher mass exodus does not materialize

For months, the specter that the pandemic would drive teachers to quit en masse fueled anxieties that the profession would be drained of talent. But an Education Week data analysis, published on Nov. 17, paints a different, less dire picture. The urgent predictions that COVID-19 was fueling a national surge of teachers leaving the classroom could not be validated.

November 19: With infections on the rise, schools pivot again

After a pitched battle to reopen some of its school buildings in October, New York City is forced to shift back to a fully remote model after infection rates in the city cracked a key benchmark. It’s a blow to the overall push for broader school reopening, as other districts that had reopened also begin to pull back from in-person learning.

In this Nov. 14, 2020, file photo, parents and students demonstrate during a rally in New York calling on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to keep schools open. De Blasio announced on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, that New York City will be shuttering schools to try to stop the renewed spread of the coronavirus. The nation's largest public school system will halt in-person learning on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, sending more than 1 million children into all-online classes, the mayor said.

December 8: A reopening declaration

President-elect Joe Biden vows to open schools in the first 100 days of his presidency.

Virus Outbreak Schools 21043615681403

December 11: Vaccines become a beacon of hope

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issues the first emergency use authorization for a vaccine for the prevention of coronavirus disease, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine.

EU Virus Outbreak EMA Explainer 20350401195535

End of December: Teachers start to get the shot

Teachers begin to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The Knox County health department in Indiana began vaccinating educators on Dec. 28.

Valerie Kelly, a 5th grade teacher in Vincennes, Ind., receives the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 28, 2020.

January 6, 2021: The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol

Educators, many teaching remotely, had to decide whether and how to teach the violent, historical moment. In the end, most teachers didn’t address it with their students.

Capitol Riot Disinformation Nation 21047771810756

A day later, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos submits her resignation.

January 20: Biden becomes president

President Joe Biden is inaugurated.

Pictures of the Month Religion Photo Gallery 21032549011843

The countdown begins on his promise to reopen schools in 100 days. Teacher vaccinations will be key to that goal, but in most states, teachers aren’t yet eligible to get the shot.

February 7: Reopening tensions mount

The Chicago Teachers Union reaches an agreement with the school district about how to reopen schools, avoiding a potential strike. In big cities across the country, teachers’ unions have pushed their districts to delay reopening until educators are vaccinated and safety measures are in place.

Elementary 1 teacher Melissa Vozar sits outside of Suder Elementary in Chicago to teach a virtual class on Jan. 11, 2021. The Chicago Teachers Union said that its members voted to defy an order to return to the classroom before they are vaccinated against the coronavirus, setting up a showdown with district officials who have said such a move would amount to an illegal strike.

February: Teacher vaccinations ramp up

By Feb. 9, nearly a fifth of National Education Association members say they’ve been vaccinated, and another 18 percent say they’ve scheduled their shots.

Kentucky becomes the first state to finish the first round of teacher vaccinations. According to reports, about 70 percent of K-12 personnel in the state had agreed to take the vaccine.

February 21: Long-awaited CDC guidelines released

“I want to underscore that the safest way to open schools is to ensure that there is as little disease as possible in the community,” CDC Director Rochelle Walenksy said. “Thus, enabling schools to open and remain open is a shared responsibility.”

March 1: A new education secretary, with a daunting job ahead

The U.S. Senate confirms Miguel Cardona to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education, placing him in the role as the nation’s education system faces an unprecedented crisis.

March 1: A monumental loss to the field, and to thousands of families

As of March 1, 2021, at least 856 active and retired K-12 educators and personnel have died of COVID-19. Of those, 233 were active teachers.

Swim caps with messages of mourning for beloved coach Kerry Croswhite.

March 2: A declaration on vaccinations

President Joe Biden directs states to prioritize educators for the coronavirus vaccine, saying that he’s using “the full authority of the federal government” to challenge them to get teachers and other school staff at least one dose by the end of this month.

Stacey Decker, Deputy Managing Editor for Digital; Lesli A. Maxwell, Managing Editor; and Emma Patti Harris, Deputy Managing Editor, Visual and Immersive Experiences contributed to this article.


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