The COVID-19 pandemic initially resulted in an unanticipated and near-universal shift from in-person to virtual instruction in spring 2020. During the 2020-21 school year, schools began to re-open and families were faced with decisions regarding the instructional mode for their children. We leverage administrative, survey, and virtual-learning data to examine the determinants of family learning-mode choice and the effects of virtual education on student engagement and academic achievement. Family preference for virtual (versus face-to-face) instruction was most highly associated with school-level infection rates and appeared relatively uniform within schools. We find that students who were assigned a higher proportion of instructional days in virtual mode experienced higher rates of attendance, but also negative student achievement growth compared to students who were assigned a higher proportion of instructional days in face-to-face mode. Students belonging to marginalized groups experienced more positive associations with attendance but were also more likely to experience lower student achievement growth when assigned a greater proportion of instructional days in virtual mode. Insights from this study can be used to better understand family preference as well as to target and refine virtual learning in a post-COVID-19 society.
Recent increases in high school graduation rates have been linked anecdotally to online course-taking for credit recovery. Online course-taking that supports high school completion could open opportunities for postsecondary education pursuits. Alternatively, poorer quality online instruction could diminish student learning and discourage persistence toward graduation and further education. Using quasi-experimental methods in an eight-year longitudinal study of high school online course-taking, we find positive associations between online course-taking, credits earned and high school graduation, and for those with limited online course-taking, small increases in college enrollment. However, we find significantly lower four-year college enrollments and lower-quality college enrollments for all online course-takers, leaving open the question of whether online course-taking will lead to longer-term postsecondary education and labor market success.