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The impacts of COVID-19 on K-8 science teaching and teachers

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Abstract and Figures

Some science education researchers have presented either isolated findings on specific points in time during the pandemic or non-empirical insights or suggestions for how teachers, district leaders, policymakers, and others should take up the learnings from the pandemic to move science education forward. However, there are few studies published to date that provide robust and longitudinal empirical data on what science instruction looked like throughout the pandemic and the magnitude of the impacts of the pandemic on science instruction when compared to pre-pandemic science teaching and learning. We conducted a primarily survey-based study on science instruction and enactment of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in K-8 classrooms throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This analysis also incorporates a longitudinal dataset from grade 6–8 teachers across California on their NGSS instruction prior to and throughout the first year of the pandemic, providing insight on instruction over multiple years before and throughout distance learning. Our findings highlight the challenges that teachers and students faced during the pandemic, as well as the significant impacts that distance learning appeared to have on science instruction and teachers’ ability to provide NGSS-aligned instruction. However, we also found that a year after the initial school closures, teachers’ science instruction began to show improvements both in the frequency of science instruction (how often they were able to provide science instruction through distance learning) and the quality of science instruction (how often teachers were able to provide instruction that was aligned with the goals of the NGSS). Implications of this work are far reaching and may impact teachers, students, administrators, policymakers, professional learning providers, and curriculum developers regardless of whether science instruction occurs through distance learning or in-person moving forward.
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Maciasetal. Discip Interdscip Sci Educ Res (2022) 4:20
https://doi.org/10.1186/s43031-022-00060-3
RESEARCH
The impacts ofCOVID-19 onK-8 science
teaching andteachers
Meghan Macias1,2* , Ashley Iveland1, Melissa Rego1 and Maya Salcido White1
Abstract
Some science education researchers have presented either isolated findings on specific points in time during the
pandemic or non-empirical insights or suggestions for how teachers, district leaders, policymakers, and others should
take up the learnings from the pandemic to move science education forward. However, there are few studies pub-
lished to date that provide robust and longitudinal empirical data on what science instruction looked like throughout
the pandemic and the magnitude of the impacts of the pandemic on science instruction when compared to pre-
pandemic science teaching and learning. We conducted a primarily survey-based study on science instruction and
enactment of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in K-8 classrooms throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
This analysis also incorporates a longitudinal dataset from grade 6–8 teachers across California on their NGSS instruc-
tion prior to and throughout the first year of the pandemic, providing insight on instruction over multiple years before
and throughout distance learning. Our findings highlight the challenges that teachers and students faced during
the pandemic, as well as the significant impacts that distance learning appeared to have on science instruction and
teachers’ ability to provide NGSS-aligned instruction. However, we also found that a year after the initial school clo-
sures, teachers’ science instruction began to show improvements both in the frequency of science instruction (how
often they were able to provide science instruction through distance learning) and the quality of science instruction
(how often teachers were able to provide instruction that was aligned with the goals of the NGSS). Implications of
this work are far reaching and may impact teachers, students, administrators, policymakers, professional learning
providers, and curriculum developers regardless of whether science instruction occurs through distance learning or
in-person moving forward.
Keywords: Science instruction, COVID-19, K-8, Next generation science standards, Distance Learning, Survey
Research
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Introduction
e COVID-19 pandemic has had significant impacts on
society in all sectors. In particular, educational systems
have had to adapt to mostly virtual methods of instruc-
tion with school closures in effect for much of the last
year in most of the United States. Online learning proved
difficult to implement even before the pandemic made
it essential, presenting challenges for students, educa-
tors, and staff (Gillett-Swan, 2017). However, it was
especially difficult on the mass scale which occurred dur-
ing the pandemic, and considering existing inequities in
and across communities that left some students without
adequate access to essentials like reliable internet, tech-
nological resources, or instructional materials (Holo-
quist etal., 2020; Morrar, 2020). Science education was
no exception to widespread challenges faced during the
COVID-19 pandemic and proved difficult to teach virtu-
ally from the beginning (Kurtz etal., 2020).
e Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS
Lead States, 2013) envision science learning as three-
dimensional (3D), incorporating Science and Engineer-
ing Practices (SEPs), Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs), and
Open Access
Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary
Science Education Research
*Correspondence: mmacias2@wested.org
2 WestEd, San Francisco, CA, USA
Full list of author information is available at the end of the article
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Maciasetal. Discip Interdscip Sci Educ Res (2022) 4:20
Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs) in order to elicit student
interest and engagement in science. e NGSS aim to
engage students in these three dimensions of learning in
a way that provides knowledge-rich experiences and deep
learning, building on prior knowledge, experiences, and
promoting student agency (Duschl & Bybee, 2014). is
way of learning, however, was more challenging to imple-
ment during school closures in a virtual learning environ-
ment and with strict social distancing requirements in
place (Authors, 2020) because it calls for student collabo-
ration (which is not the same in a Zoom breakout room),
in-depth hands-on investigations (for which materials are
usually limited), and sophisticated teacher moves (that
require more than just students to have their cameras
on).
While some saw success with e-learning experiences or
teaching science in a virtual environment (e.g., Babateen,
2011; Cavanaugh etal., 2004), the sudden move to dis-
tance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic presented
a myriad of issues for teachers, students, and other school
officials in 2020 and 2021 (Kurtz, 2020; Wyse etal., 2020).
For example, there was little time for the adaptation or
adoption of science curricula that was designed for fully
remote instruction across all grade levels (Marple & Le
Fevre, 2021) and students and teachers alike were battling
a profound sense of isolation and lack of community dur-
ing quarantine that left them without critical socioemo-
tional supports (Carnegie Math Pathways, 2021; Folsom,
2021). is radically different teaching and learning
context highlighted the need to investigate how science
was taught throughout the pandemic and the impacts
on instruction and students’ opportunities to engage in
NGSS-aligned science. Furthermore, the lessons learned
during this time period should be carried into schools as
they return to in-person instruction.
Literature review
is study builds on the existing literature around
teaching during unanticipated distressing events such
as an epidemic, a natural disaster, or a school shoot-
ing (e.g., Liu etal., 2012; Lee, 1999; Tsai, 2001; Prinstein
etal., 1996; Le Brocque etal., 2017; Schiller, 2013; Wike
& Fraser, 2009). However, more than a year after wide-
spread distance learning began, there is as of yet little
empirical research on what occurred during distance
learning and how lessons learned during this period
should inform science education more broadly moving
forward. Currently, anecdotal documentation of science
teaching and learning during COVID-19 has become
available. Much of this body of literature has found that
given the right support and appropriate amount of time,
teachers can be successful at engaging students in mean-
ingful online learning experiences (e.g., Ames etal., 2021;
Rannastu-Avalos & Siiman, 2020; Rouleau et al., 2021;
Schwartz et al., 2020). However, many of these studies
were largely anecdotal, had small sample sizes, were pri-
marily qualitative in nature, and do not include longer-
term data through spring 2021 when many students were
still online (Campell et a. 2021; Darling Hammond &
Hyler, 2020). Further empirical research needs to be done
that uses larger sample sizes, draws on mixed methods
approaches, and draws on a longer-term data set across
the duration of the pandemic. is study addresses gaps
in the literature, ultimately working to inform both dis-
tance and in-person science teaching and learning mov-
ing forward. is work provides valuable insight on what
education systems can do to provide quality science
instruction and appropriate teacher support during times
of crisis.
Theoretical framework
While other research largely focuses on a single ele-
ment or context within the education system during the
COVID-19 pandemic, we posit that research must take a
broader view when investigating the impacts of the pan-
demic. For this study we drew on and adapted the idea
of concentric circles emanating out from the learner
within the center from theories like Bronfenbrenner’s
ecological systems model (1979). Our adapted model
considered each district as its own system, with smaller,
nested systems within it (the school and classroom). Typ-
ically, within the classroom is the learner, which includes
both the student and the teacher (Lieberman, 1995). We
acknowledge that these systems are not cleanly nested,
and networks between, across, or outside of them may
affect learners within (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger,
1998; Wilson, 1993). is perspective views learning as
contextual and social and influenced by factors occur-
ring within and outside of these systems (Peressini etal.,
2004).
As such, this view lends itself to investigations of stu-
dents and teachers in an education system that was rat-
tled by the COVID-19 pandemic. In other words, we
adopt Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model to investigate
the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on a complex,
layered system. Investigating science instruction through
this lens better accounts for the fact that the implementa-
tion of instructional changes or improvements can only
occur when the many components within the education
system are in alignment (Century & Cassata, 2016). We
sought to understand how the pandemic impacted these
components within the education system, how they
changed over time, and whether or to what extent these
changes affected science instruction in particular. Within
this larger system, we focus on science instruction from
the teachers’ perspective, but gain their insights on other
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Maciasetal. Discip Interdscip Sci Educ Res (2022) 4:20
components of the education system such as district poli-
cies, supports, and student engagement, which influence
the teacher and their ability to enact high-quality science
instruction.
Research questions
is study examined the effects of school closures caused
by the COVID-19 pandemic on K-8 science instruc-
tion. is study was guided by the following research
questions:
During the COVID-19 pandemic:
1. What opportunities and challenges were teachers of
science experiencing?
2. What tools, resources, and supports were teachers of
science receiving and utilizing to guide their science
instruction?
3. What elements of the NGSS were teachers address-
ing and how was science being enacted in their
classes?
Methods
e research presented below is from analyses done on
two national surveys on the impacts of COVID-19 con-
ducted during the spring/summer of 2020 and the spring
of 2021, as well as surveys from a smaller subsample of
California grade 6–8 teachers from an ongoing study of
the NGSS.
Context andparticipants
is study was part of a multi-year project with over 100
grade 6–8 public school teacher participants across Cali-
fornia (“NGSS Study”). In late spring of 2020, the study
team developed and distributed a survey about NGSS
distance learning instruction during COVID-19 related
school closures nationally, with a follow-up survey
that was distributed in the spring of 2021. Participants
included a total of 342 teachers in 2020 representing
25 states, and 193 teachers in 2021 from 15 states, with
California and New Mexico consistently represented
the most. Participants had to be K-8 teachers who were
teaching science prior to the shift to distance learning.
Participants were primarily upper elementary and middle
grades teachers, with many who were grade 6–8 teachers
in California who had also responded to at least one prior
survey as a part of the multi-year NGSS study. Teachers
were recruited through emails to professional organi-
zations, social media posts, and by contacting district
personnel.
Data collection
Researchers developed a survey instrument based on
several existing valid and reliable surveys widely used
in science education research (e.g., Bae et al., 2016;
Banilower et al., 2018; Enochs & Riggs, 1990; Lumpe
et al., 2000; Reiser et al., 2017). End-of-year (EOY)
teacher surveys documented participants’ overall
impressions of the aspects of the NGSS they taught
throughout the year. ese surveys were completed in
the summer of 2018 and 2019; two surveys were dis-
seminated in early spring 2020 (asking teachers to
reflect on their practice prior to school closures due to
COVI19), and summer 2020 (asking teachers to reflect
on their practice during school closures). Finally, the
last survey was disseminated in spring 2021. Surveys
solicited participants’ retrospective views of teaching
and learning during the prior school year (as they were
given at the end of the year in the spring/summer) with
the exception of the second 2020 survey which asked
teachers to reflect specifically on teaching and learn-
ing during the semester of school closures. Pre-COVID
surveys (summer 2018, 2019, and spring 2020) included
131 total closed-ended survey questions. Pre-COVID
surveys included questions about NGSS implemen-
tation (e.g., thinking about your science instruction
over the past year, how often did you incorporate ask-
ing questions?), the role of phenomena in instruction
(e.g., thinking about your science instruction over the
past year, to what extent were you able to use science
and/or engineering phenomena as a substantial driver
of instruction?), as well as items related to equity (e.g.,
thinking about your science instruction over the past
year, how often did you incorporate students’ cultural
backgrounds into science instruction?).
In May 2020, researchers developed the “Distance
Learning survey” which asked many questions that
were on the EOY survey, but also drew on new sur-
veys specific to distance learning during COVID-19
(e.g., Kurtz, 2020) and included 140 multiple choice,
Likert-scale, and open-ended questions. e sur-
vey included questions about teachers’ contexts (e.g.,
school district, teaching responsibilities pre- and dur-
ing pandemic), change in levels of student learning and
engagement before and during the pandemic, align-
ment of distance learning with the NGSS, and support
for distance learning from outside sources (e.g., district
or school-level support). See supplementary materials
for full surveys. is survey was distributed nationwide
in Summer 2020 and Spring 2021, and to participants
in the NGSS study. See Table1 below for a timeline of
when the surveys were disseminated, who participated,
and the number of participants.
Insert Table1 about here.
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Maciasetal. Discip Interdscip Sci Educ Res (2022) 4:20
Data analysis
First, the Distance Learning survey responses were exam-
ined for all respondents. Multiple choice survey items
were analyzed descriptively (e.g., frequencies were run,
and percentages were computed) and statistical t-tests
and analysis of variance (ANOVAs) with post-hoc tests
were performed to determine statistically significant dif-
ferences over time (between spring 2020 and spring 2021)
as well as between specific groups (e.g., grade K-2 vs. 3–5
vs. 6–8 teachers). Open-ended survey items were ana-
lyzed using emergent coding methods (Saldaña, 2011) to
uncover themes in teacher responses. Next, researchers
compared the Distance Learning survey responses from
the grade 6–8 teachers in California to the responses of
similar teachers from prior years’ surveys. is allowed
researchers to look at changes over time of NGSS imple-
mentation before and during the COVID-19 pandemic
among this subsample of California science middle
grades teachers.
Results
Science learning andengagement
Our survey found that when teachers were asked to
compare student engagement during school closures in
spring of 2020 and spring of 2021 to student engagement
through in-person learning before school closures, they
reported much less student learning and engagement
throughout the pandemic. As shown in Fig.1, more than
half of respondents in spring of 2020 reported that stu-
dents were engaged “much less” through distance learn-
ing when compared to regular classroom instruction
before school closures. e following year in spring of
2021, data showed a subtle improvement, with slightly
fewer teachers (44%) reporting that students were
engaged “much less” through distance learning compared
to before school closures. Furthermore, a majority of
teachers in spring of 2020 (52%) reported that students
were also learning less science during school closures
when compared to before school closures, but this find-
ing also had similar gains by spring of 2021.
When disaggregated by grade band, results of the
ANOVA indicated that grade 6–8 teachers indicated that
students in their classes were significantly less engaged
(F(2, 261) = 6.68, p = 0.0015) than those in the elemen-
tary grades, and that the youngest students (K-2) were
the most engaged overall. is may show that there were
challenges for science education at the secondary level
that were impacting students’ learning and engagement
in science instruction in an online format.
Time spent onscience
Another challenge of online teaching was that teach-
ers were spending overall less time with students and
thus spending less time on science. In the spring of 2020,
most teachers (88%) indicated that students were spend-
ing less time on science through distance learning, with
teachers saying that they planned between 1 and 2 hours
of science instruction per week on average. However, by
the spring of 2021 teachers indicated spending more time
on science, planning upwards of 3–5 hours per week on
average (see Fig. 2). While this shows how much time
teachers planned for students to spend and does not nec-
essarily reflect the actual amount of time students were
engaged in science learning, these findings still show that
teachers were able to incorporate more science time into
their instruction by the spring of 2021.
Overall, teachers reported that there was substantially
less time spent on science during school closures, but by
spring of 2021 teachers had persisted and were starting
to incorporate more science, more often. However, time
spent on science does not reflect the quality of science
instruction that students were receiving. Below, we dis-
cuss whether students had opportunities to engage in
rigorous, NGSS-aligned science learning during school
closures.
NGSS‑aligned instructional methods
Figure3 below shows that early in the pandemic in spring
of 2020 teachers overwhelmingly relied on teaching strat-
egies that were not aligned with the goals of the NGSS,
such as watching videos or online simulations and read-
ing material with very little implementation of investiga-
tions, discussions, group work, or analyzing data in ways
that would promote student agency and deeper science
Table 1 Time and year or survey dissemination, total number of participants, and sample demographics by year
*Spring 2020 survey asked about in-person instruction prior to school closures. Summer 2020 survey asked about distance-learning instruction during school closures
Survey time/year N Participant demographics by year
Summer 2018 119 NGSS study participants: middle school science teachers from California
Summer 2019 109 NGSS study participants: middle school science teachers from California
Spring 2020* 120 NGSS study participants: middle school science teachers from California
Summer 2020* 452 NGSS study participants: middle school science teachers from California + expanded sam-
ple: K-8 science teachers across US
Spring 2021 193 NGSS study participants from California + expanded sample: K-8 science teachers across US
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Maciasetal. Discip Interdscip Sci Educ Res (2022) 4:20
Fig. 1 Student Engagement and Level of Science Learning Through Distance Learning Compared to In-Person Instruction
Fig. 2 Time Planned for Science: Spring 2020 vs. Spring 2021
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Maciasetal. Discip Interdscip Sci Educ Res (2022) 4:20
learning. ere were some changes in Spring 2021; the
strategies that are not NGSS aligned were not used by as
many teachers overall, and there were dramatic increases
in many of the strategies that correlate to NGSS-aligned
instruction that would further student science learning.
For example, a key element of NGSS instruction, inves-
tigations, had some drastic changes occur during the
pandemic. While in 2020 nearly twice as many teachers
said that the students were doing investigations (41%)
as opposed to the teachers (26%), by spring 2021 much
more teachers reported doing the investigations them-
selves at least “sometimes” (65%), which is significantly
more than the 47% who said students were doing the
investigations at least “sometimes”. is means that inves-
tigations actually became less NGSS-aligned after spring
2020 because teachers were not having their students
engage in the investigations themselves, limiting their
agency and ability to fully engage in the “figuring out” of
phenomena that is a main goal of the NGSS.
Student discourse also increased dramatically from
spring 2020 to spring 2021, seeing two- and three-fold
increases in the number of teachers who engaged their
students in both oral and written discussions in whole
class and small group context between these time points.
In addition, more teachers had their students engage in
group work (albeit virtually) with only 9% of teachers say-
ing they had students do any group work in spring 2020,
to 42% of teachers having their students do group work at
least “sometimes” during the 2020–21 school year.
We took a closer look at what was happening during
distance learning in 2021, broken down by grade band.
When we ran ANOVAs across grade bands (K-2, 3–5,
or 6–8), drawing on the same survey questions about
NGSS-aligned instructional methods, we found some
statistically significant differences. On average, middle
school teachers (grades 6–8) were more likely than K-2
or 3–5 teachers to engage students in group work (F(2,
258) = 5.45, p = 0.005) and in written (F(2, 259) = 7.73,
p < 0.001) and oral discussions (F(2, 258) = 7.08,
p = 0.001), and these differences were statistically signif-
icant. K-2 and 3–5 teachers were more likely than mid-
dle school teachers to use videos and engage students in
reading material online or in print, although these differ-
ences were not statistically significant.
Fig. 3 Teachers’ Reported NGSS-Aligned Instructional Methods: 2020 vs 2021
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Maciasetal. Discip Interdscip Sci Educ Res (2022) 4:20
Next, we were able to examine longitudinal differ-
ences in NGSS-aligned instruction amongst the NGSS
study, California middle school science teacher sample.
We analyzed survey questions that asked about the fre-
quency of implementation of NGSS-aligned instructional
methods that are associated with equity and diversity.
When we asked to what extent grade 6–8 teachers in
California were able to encourage student interest in sci-
ence, encourage student voice in co-constructing what
happens in science class, build on students’ prior knowl-
edge or experiences, and make connections to students’
everyday lives, teachers reported a sharp decrease in
2020 compared to previous years (e.g., 2018 and 2019),
with an upward trend by spring 2021 (Fig.4). All of these
instructional strategies are those which not only encour-
age NGSS-aligned science instruction, but also promote
more equitable engagement in deep science learning.
NGSS‑aligned instruction
When asked how difficult it was to implement the
SEPs, 60% of teachers reported that it was “much more”
difficult to implement this feature of the NGSS in 2020
than prior to school closures. When asked the same ques-
tion in 2021, teachers reported that this was slightly less
difficult than in spring of 2020, though still “somewhat
more” difficult compared to before school closures. is
trend held for the CCCs as well. See Table2 to see the
mean increases for all SEPs and CCCs teachers reported
incorporating into their instruction for 2020 and 2021.
ese increases from 2020 to 2021 were all statistically
significant.
ough it seemed to get slightly easier for teachers to
engage their students in the SEPs through distance learn-
ing over time, findings still indicate that SEPs were more
challenging to implement during school closures than
prior to the pandemic. is increase from 2020 to 2021
was good, but the status reported in spring 2021 may
not reflect the full magnitude of the impacts on science
instruction that distance learning had.
A look at longitudinal data from our subsample
of California middle school science teachers reveal
much more dramatic decreases in SEP and CCC
Fig. 4 Teachers’ Reported Equity-Focused Practices: 2020 vs 2021
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Maciasetal. Discip Interdscip Sci Educ Res (2022) 4:20
implementation during the pandemic. For example,
Fig.5 shows a significant decrease in reported imple-
mentation of practices related to planning and con-
ducting investigations in spring of 2020 compared to
previous years, and then a marked increase in 2021.
However, while our spring 2021 survey showed that on
average teachers were incorporating all practices more
often, the frequency is still far below pre-pandemic
levels.
When examining differences by grade level, we found
some notable differences in their reported SEP and CCC
implementation. K-2 teachers were more likely than
middle school teachers to report both planning (F(2,
258) = 4.71, p = 0.009) and doing investigations (F(2,
258) = 4.10, p = 0.01) more often, and this difference was
statistically significant. However, middle school teach-
ers were more likely than K-2 and 3–5 teachers to report
developing and using models (F(2, 258) = 7.52, p < 0.001),
using evidence to support a claim (F(2, 256) = 14.53,
p < 0.001), evaluating information (F(2, 258) = 5.44,
p = 0.004), recording observations (F(2, 257) = 6.74,
p = 0.001), graphing data (F(2, 256) = 5.87, p = 0.01),
and analyzing and interpreting data (F(2, 256) = 15.07,
p < 0.001) more often. is suggests that while younger
students were engaged in investigations, they were less
likely to have opportunities to engage in other important
pieces of NGSS-aligned science.
Evolving challenges
e primary challenges that K-8 teachers cited most
often throughout the pandemic stayed relatively constant
(see Table3). However, teachers of grade 6–8 students
felt the lack of hands-on investigations and low levels of
student participation, motivation, and engagement were
more challenging than for elementary teachers, while
elementary teachers felt the lack of collaboration and
discourse and lack of science materials and supplies for
students were more challenging. All teachers cited equity
issues that impacted instruction in spring 2020. Despite
knowing that instruction was very likely to be and remain
virtual, these most cited challenges largely stayed con-
stant from spring 2020 through spring 2021. ere were
some changes over time, however. For example, low stu-
dent participation, motivation, and engagement were
rated as a major challenge in the early days of the pan-
demic, but then were replaced by challenges related to
student collaboration and discourse by spring 2021.
Insert Table3 about here.
Overall, teachers at the beginning of the pandemic
struggled to get students to participate in online learning,
with students often failing to attend synchronous lessons,
and not participating or engaging in instruction even
when they were there. Many of these issues were less
challenging in 2021, with the elementary grades K-5 no
longer citing this as one of their top five challenges. is
Table 2 T-test Results of Teachers Reported Incorporation of SEPs and CCCs in 2020 and 2021
Note: Scale is 0 = not at all, 3 = somewhat, 5 = to a great extent.
Sig t df Mean
Dierence
Change in asking questions between 2020 and 2021 0.01 5.65 419.72 0.53
Change in planning investigations or experiments between 2020 and 2021 0.01 2.34 458.50 0.23
Change in doing investigations between 2020 and 2021 0.002 2.10 449.04 0.28
Change in coming up with explanations between 2020 and 2021 0.001 4.47 446.86 0.40
Change in developing and using models between 2020 and 2021 0.001 4.46 446.86 0.40
Change in using evidence to support a claim between 2020 and 2021 0.001 5.27 431.17 0.54
Change in recording observations between 2020 and 2021 0.001 3.82 383.98 0.42
Change in evaluating information between 2020 and 2021 0.001 3.12 440.54 0.29
Change in graphing data between 2020 and 2021 0.001 5.06 392.95 0.50
Change in analyzing and interpreting data between 2020 and 2021 0.002 3.17 410.46 0.33
Change in looking for patterns in data between 2020 and 2021 0.001 5.57 408.55 0.58
Change in designing the steps needed to answer questions between 2020 and 2021 0.001 4.16 419.82 0.41
Change in cause and effect between 2020 and 2021 0.001 3.45 383.10 0.24
Change in patterns between 2020 and 2021 0.001 4.06 373.68 0.43
Change in scale, proportion, and quantity between 2020 and 2021 0.008 2.67 352.53 0.37
Change in systems and system models between 2020 and 2021 0.001 4.32 393.23 0.50
Change in energy and matter between 2020 and 2021 0.001 4.32 386.49 0.47
Change in structure and function between 2020 and 2021 0.001 4.59 413.25 0.26
Change in stability and change between 2020 and 2021 0.001 2.49 402.22 0.20
Page 9 of 13
Maciasetal. Discip Interdscip Sci Educ Res (2022) 4:20
change may be attributed to having more time with stu-
dents, many people putting in much work to ensure that
all students are now able to join online meetings using
provided technology, students and teachers both being
supported more across the board, and teachers utilizing
more and different ways to engage students in this virtual
format.
e challenge with a lack of materials that teachers and
students had access to was not limited to those needed
for investigations. Teachers’ lack of access to curriculum
materials that were appropriate for distance or hybrid
learning environments was also a common challenge
during school closures. Prior to the pandemic, teachers
reported using commercially published kits and modules;
state, district, or school-developed units and lessons; or
other commercially developed online and print materials
in their science lessons. After shifting to online instruc-
tion, teachers reported utilizing materials they created
on their own or with colleagues, or lessons and resources
from free online sources. Many teachers also indicated
Fig. 5 Average teacher Implementation of Investigation-Related Science Practices
Table 3 Challenges to Teaching Science in K-8 Through Distance Learning: 2020 vs. 2021
Note: This question was an open-response in spring 2020, and responses were open-coded. The themes uncovered in this coding led to the response options that
were provided to teachers in the spring 2021 survey for this item. Therefore all responses are reported by how often teachers cited that challenge within each survey/
year and cannot be readily compared across years
What have you found to be the most challenging about implementing successful distance learning for
science specically? Spring 2020 Spring 2021
Less hands-on, inquiry, and exploration/investigation 1st (44%) 1st (88%)
Low student participation, motivation, and engagement in science online. 2nd (34%) 4/5th (55%)
Lack of science materials and supplies for students 3rd (24%) 4/5th (55%)
Less student collaboration/discourse 4th (16%) 2nd (76%)
Issues students face using technology (internet, devices, platforms, skill and/or experience with technology) 5th (15%) 3rd (59%)
Page 10 of 13
Maciasetal. Discip Interdscip Sci Educ Res (2022) 4:20
needing to draw from multiple resources to have materi-
als that worked for their online classroom. is suggests
that teachers put together their own sets of materials for
remote instruction, as they lacked materials that were
designed for distance learning. Teachers who were in dis-
tricts that had already adopted NGSS-aligned curricula
prior to the pandemic reported using these materials
they had in whatever way they could.
Opportunities forscience education duringCOVID
Our findings indicate that there were statistically sig-
nificant increases in some key features of NGSS-aligned
instruction. For example, as mentioned earlier, there were
significant increases in SEP and CCC implementation in
2021 when compared with their implementation in 2020.
Furthermore, we found that there were also increases
in how often teachers were able to encourage student
agency in science and in how often they connected sci-
ence instruction to students’ everyday lives, prior knowl-
edge, or experiences when compared 2020 reports
(Table4). Encouraging student agency in the class (e.g.,
giving students ownership in their science learning) was
statistically significant. Importantly, teachers reported a
significant increase in providing mental and emotional
support to students in 2021 when compared to 2020.
Insert Table4 about here.
By 2021, teachers were utilizing teaching methods that
encouraged student voice, built on students’ prior knowl-
edge or experiences, and made connections to students’
everyday lives’, as well as attending to student mental and
emotional health. is increase indicates a return to the
quality of instruction happening pre-pandemic.
In addition to these important opportunities and in
contrast to most of our survey respondents, a small
group of teachers reported increased student engage-
ment and learning during distance learning. e teach-
ers who felt their students were more engaged in science
during distance learning when compared with in-person
instruction cited the following reasons for this change:
capitalizing on flexible schedules; using familiar low-
cost or no-cost materials to engage students in science;
and encouraging student ownership of their new learning
environments. In open-ended survey questions, teachers
elaborated on why they thought their students were more
engaged. Several teachers offered that the more relaxed
schedule and the removal of hard deadlines allowed
students to spend more time engaged with science phe-
nomena in their classrooms. In addition, some teachers
reported feeling that they had more time to teach science
because state tests were suspended during the pandemic
and so there was less pressure to focus on ELA and math
for testing purposes.
Discussion
As the research presented here shows, many teach-
ers reported drastic reductions in high-quality science
in their classrooms and districts as a result of the pan-
demic. Elementary teachers in particular seemed to be
able to implement science instruction more often, per-
haps because they were able to fold science into their
ELA and math lessons (Pesnell, 2020). is finding differs
from previous literature that has historically shown How-
ever, just because elementary teachers were able to do
more science instruction, it does not necessarily follow
that they were doing more NGSS science instruction. As
our findings show, elementary teachers were more likely
to do investigations with their students, but less likely to
implement other SEPs when compared to middle school
teachers. is could be due to elementary teachers’ gen-
erally low self-efficacy to teach science (National Acad-
emies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2021).
is finding suggests a need for NGSS-aligned curricu-
lum that not only is adaptable for distance learning, but is
also educative in its ability to support teachers to provide
NGSS-aligned science instruction and engage their stu-
dents in deep science learning.
Additionally, our findings showed that elementary
teachers were less likely to engage students in group work
and written and oral discussions. is may be because
engaging in group work and written discussions, in par-
ticular, through distance learning most often takes the
form of using breakout rooms, having students coordi-
nate and meet independently, or type written responses,
all of which require more technology fluency and digital
literacy than many elementary school students have. is
finding aligns with other similar studies of K-8 distance
learning which have found that teachers relied more on
practices that gave students interaction with content and
Table 4 T-test Results of Teachers Reported Incorporation of Student Agency, Prior Experiences, and Mental/Emotional Health
Between 2020 and 2021
Note: Scale is 0 = not at all, 3 = somewhat, 5 = to a great extent.
Sig t df Mean Dierence
Change in giving students ownership in their science learning between 2020 and 2021 0.001 3.73 440.87 0.33
Change in supporting students mentally and emotionally between 2020 and 2021 0.001 4.05 322.72 0.56
Change in relating science instruction to students’ home lives or communities 2020 and 2021 0.99 0.01 322.72 0.0018
Page 11 of 13
Maciasetal. Discip Interdscip Sci Educ Res (2022) 4:20
to the teacher, but rarely with their peers (Kara et al.,
2022). In addition, oral discussions online with young
students can be especially difficult because the teacher
cannot easily discern what is being said if multiple stu-
dents are talking at once, or if there is a noisy background
in the students’ learning environment. is highlights the
two-pronged requirement of science education during
distance learning: students and teachers not only need to
acquire scientific literacy but digital literacy as well.
However, elementary teachers were not the only teach-
ers struggling to teach science via distance learning.
After schools initially closed, teachers at all levels strug-
gled to keep students engaged in high quality science
lessons and they reported less science learning through-
out the whole first year of the pandemic. As our survey
findings showed, investigations actually became less
NGSS-aligned after spring 2020 because teachers were
the ones conducting investigations, not students. is
makes sense given that teachers struggled to receive and
distribute supplies to students for investigations through
distance learning (Authors, 2020, 2021). Furthermore,
teachers were burdened with not only learning how to
teach virtually, but also had to become their own curricu-
lum developers, spending a great deal of time searching
for and compiling instructional materials that suited their
needs and the needs of their students. With materials
and lessons coming from so many different sources, it is
to be expected that lessons and units were not as coher-
ent or NGSS-aligned as they normally would be. How-
ever, this presents a challenge for student learning and
engagement. e numerous challenges presented above,
including technology issues as well as fewer hands-on,
investigation experiences, may shed light on why teach-
ers reported less student learning and engagement. is
aligns with other research that has found that science, in
particular, was the most difficult to teach virtually (Kurtz,
2020). However, over time, some of these challenges were
at least somewhat resolved.
e difference between 2021 and 2020 responses
indicated that teachers were beginning to adapt to new
modes (e.g., online class meetings) and methods (e.g.,
discussions using chat or message boards) of instruc-
tion. ese general increases seen in 2021 are likely
attributable to teachers’ resiliency and dedication to
teaching NGSS-aligned science despite having to sur-
mount huge barriers in doing so. As reported in our
findings, some teachers that experienced success in
2021 capitalized on flexible schedules, an important
practice to create more manageable workloads for stu-
dents, as identified by prior studies (Johnson, 2021).
Importantly, this is no small finding; teachers contin-
ued resilience to support their students (e.g., increasing
emotional support provided reported in our surveys)
is a powerful example and reminder of the important
work that teachers do (Lowenhaupt etal., 2021). When
specifically examining NGSS implementation though,
most teachers still reported that learning and engage-
ment remained much lower throughout school closures
than with in-person instruction prior to the pandemic.
In short, the rebound in the quality of NGSS-aligned
science instruction still fell short of pre-pandemic
levels.
Conclusions
e work presented here provides important information
about the state of K-8 science education during distance
learning. While hopefully a once in a lifetime event, the
COVID-19 pandemic has forced us as a society to con-
front the need for scientifically literate citizens and the
need for high-quality experiences for all students. e
pandemic makes it clearer than ever the pressing need
for the critical skill to engage in scientific discussions.
is makes the case for high quality science education
at all educational levels even more salient; knowing the
level and quality of science education over the past 2 yrs
informs what steps we need to take next. COVID-19 hit
just when many districts were beginning to implement
the NGSS, sharply reducing the amount and quality of
science taught. e need for NGSS-aligned instruction
has never been greater. Furthermore, since periodic shifts
to distance learning or hybrid learning continue to be a
practice in many areas of the U.S. that continue to battle
the COVID-19 pandemic, we will likely see some similar
challenges to what we found here with distance learning.
is makes this research even more crucial as we all con-
tinue to navigate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Acknowledgements
We would like to acknowledge the research team who worked on this NSF-
funded grant (Award #1561529) and helped collect, analyze, and interpret
data; communicate and coordinate with participants; and contribute intellec-
tually to the efforts that were accomplished in an effort to better understand
how the NGSS is enacted by teachers in grades 6-8 as well as the impacts
that COVID-19 had on science instruction more broadly: Alexis Deidre Spina,
Edward Britton, Elizabeth Arnett, Jon Boxerman, Kimberly Nguyen, Jasmine
Marckwordt, Katy Nilsen, Jacklyn Powers, and Erik Arevalo. We also want to
thank Burr Tyler who assisted us on this work in collaboration with the Califor-
nia Partnership for Math and Science Education (CAPMSE). Lastly, thank you
to our project advisors both within and outside of WestEd for their invaluable
insights and feedback that pushed us to always dig deeper and move forward.
Availability of data and material
The datasets generated and/or analyzed during the current study are not
publicly available due to privacy and participant confidentiality concerns, but
are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.
Authors’ contributions
AI and MM made substantial contributions to all aspects of the work. MR
and MSW made substantial contributions to the acquisition, analysis, and
interpretation of data. AI, MM, and MR drafted and/or substantively revised the
manuscript. All authors read and approved the final version of the manuscript.
Page 12 of 13
Maciasetal. Discip Interdscip Sci Educ Res (2022) 4:20
Funding
This study was funded primarily through an NSF-funded grant (Award
#1561529) as well as by contributions from the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation-
funded California Partnership for Math and Science Education (CAPMSE).
These funding bodies had no role in the design of the study, the collection,
analysis, or interpretation of data, or in the writing of the manuscript.
Declarations
Competing interests
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Author details
1 University of California Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA, USA. 2 WestEd, San
Francisco, CA, USA.
Received: 25 November 2021 Accepted: 21 April 2022
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... Moons, Vandervieren and Colpaert (2022) offered using automation tools in order to facilitate the process of arranging feedback. Macias et al. (2022) studied whether it is possible to ensure the achievement of NGSS goals in the course of online learning. Ghanbari and Nowroozi (2021) emphasized that evaluation in online learning is another challenge faced by teachers. ...
... It was established that teachers experienced the biggest problems in the organization of online training at the beginning of the pandemic. A year later, the students have overcome a low motivation observed at the beginning of the pandemic through greater involvement of students in synchronous discussions (Macias et al., 2022), as well as participation in quizzes, forums, interactive videos, game programmes, etc. (Heilporn, Lakhal & Bélisle, 2021). And it is not necessary to attend offline lectures for this purpose (Lu & Cutumisu, 2022). ...
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