Essay COVID-19 and the System Resilience of Public Education: A View from North Carolina
An Essay for the Learning Curve
Thurston Domina, Ayesha Hashim, Caitlin Kearney, Lam Pham, Cole Smith
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Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the education system is building an understanding how spring 2020 and the 2020–21 school year affected students’ learning. Though evidence suggests that academic achievement fell by as much as half during the pandemic, third-grade math test score data from North Carolina public schools show that the pandemic’s educational consequences vary considerably from school to school and district to district. And although some of these differences can be explained by measurable local characteristics, such as student demographics, unemployment rates, school funding, and the use of in-person versus online learning, some of the differences across seemingly similar districts remain unexplained.

Key Findings

  • In spring 2021, 44 percent of tested third-graders in North Carolina public schools reached the proficiency benchmark in mathematics, compared with 65 percent in spring 2019.
  • The districts students attended—rather than just their school—accounted for 43 percent of the total variation in learning lag between spring 2019 and spring 2021 compared with 6 percent between spring 2018 and spring 2019.
  • Despite the attention on how remote instruction on student achievement, the data show that remote learning explains only a fraction of the pandemic’s impact on student learning. Some fully remote school districts demonstrated better test score performance relative to the state average, while some in-person school districts underperformed relative to other districts.


The idea of system resilience—or the collective capacity of schools, districts, and communities to effectively respond to crises—helps to make sense of variation in pandemic-era learning outcomes across schools and districts.

Though more research is needed to understand resilience and how to build it in schools, districts, and communities, there are some initial steps decisionmakers can consider. To prepare schools and districts for future crises, policymakers should invest in physical infrastructure such as broadband services and school facilities. Education leaders should also develop organizational conditions, such as proven structures, policies, practices, and routines in districts and schools that can support student learning during crises. Policymakers at the local and state level can partner with researchers to identify and disseminate knowledge on organizational conditions that support educational resilience. Finally, researchers should analyze the role that schools’ student mental health services, social and emotional well-being support, and access to social services play in building educational resilience. Understanding how these additional aspects of schooling relate to student learning and test score performance would deepen our understanding of the resilience of education systems in crisis.

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Additional Resources

Research Areas Education Children and youth
Tags K-12 education COVID-19
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy
States North Carolina