Adult Learners Continue Their Education During COVID-19

By Victoria Diamond

During economic slowdowns, studies show that adults learners go back to school. But during the pandemic, accessing classrooms is different for everyone.

During recessions, it isn’t uncommon to see college enrollments increase because of adults looking to tighten up their skills or learn new ones to make their resumes stand out during an increased number of layoffs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the last pandemic took place in 2009 with the outbreak of H1N1, but it didn’t require a global shutdown until like COVID-19. Because of this, colleges and universities had to rethink how to best serve the large population of working adults.

The Strada Center for Consumer Insights has been conducting research to learn as much as it can in real time since the outbreak of COVID-19. On March 25, Strada launched a weekly poll to gain information on public viewpoints. As of April 14, while 83% of Americans believe the coronavirus is a real threat, at this point in the pandemic their most widespread worries are about finances and jobs over personal health.

The survey also shows that 1 in 3 Americans (34%) believe they would, in fact, need more education or training to replace a lost job with one that pays a similar wage or salary. They believe that by doing so, this will give us more of a solution to our country’s current economic challenges, according to Strada.

Rachel Gwaltney says basic literacy is a first step for many adult learners. Photo credit:

Rachel Gwaltney is the director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Education (MCAE), a nonprofit organization through the merger of the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Literacy and the Massachusetts Association for Adult and Continuing Education. She says that the focus over the last several years, particularly after the reauthorization of the Federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, has been on job connectivity and preparing adult learners for the workplace.

“Literacy and basic numeracy is the first step for learners who really did not receive those skills in high school or through more formal schooling,” says Gwaltney.

Over half of the students in Mass. are learners who are not native English speakers and are learning English for the first time as they prepare for the workforce. They may be fairly knowledgeable in a job training skill in their native language and are just lacking the English skills to apply those things here, says Gwaltney.

MCAE is hoping to have some new data out in a month or so that shows how adult learners are taking to the wholly online schooling system in place because of COVID-19, she says.

“We know from data that programs report back that not all students are low income, but they may be in vulnerable social classes,” says Gwaltney. “They may be immigrants, single mothers, folks who are incarcerated right now are also part of our programs. People come with a large variety of external challenges that might affect their path for schooling and now, with this global pandemic we’re seeing mixed responses to learning online.”

While a few adult education programs may have already had some digital infrastructure in place, online learning was really not part of most programs for adults before COVID-19.

“Many adult learners had a big intermediate shift to online learning without having any background, any technology in place, any lessons about how to teach online, or any professional development for teachers teaching online,” says Gwaltney. “So we’re excited that programs have really embraced that challenge.”

For students, however, Gwaltney says there are positives and negatives. In some ways it’s good because students have more flexibility. They don’t have to worry about childcare or getting to the learning facilitates, which was certainly difficult for many students. On the downside, there are a lot of limitations. Many students don’t have access to a device that they can use other than their mobile phones. A lot of them also lack internet access. MCAE, for example, works with programs in more rural areas where internet access is difficult. Plus, many adult learners who have kids only have one learning device and often step away from using it in order for their child to get their schoolwork done.

Many adult learners are also essential workers. Gwaltney says that a large number of them are working in food supply, healthcare, and other essential businesses so there just isn’t a whole lot of time to invest in their education and learning a brand-new system.

Certificate Programs and Non-Degree Credentials May Rise
While adult learners, who are typically age 25 or older according to the Southern Regional Education Board, seek out ways to learn a new skill or trade, the question remains as to whether or not there will be a rise in adults looking to educate themselves through certificate programs or other non-degree-granting ways.

As with the recession of 2008, it’s typical to see a rise in interest in education as more and more people are laid off from work

Vanessa Gatlin, 31, is a communications strategist and consultant, a social media manager, content creator and copywriter with a love for yoga and wellness. After participating in a trauma-sensitive/trauma- centered workshop in 2017, she says she knew she wanted to further her studies in yoga with an official 200-hour yoga teacher training program.

Vanessa Gatlin wanted to further her knowledge of yoga. Photo credit:

Gatlin was four months into her six-month program when COVID hit and she instantly felt the impact of not being able to connect in-person with her fellow trainees.

“With so much of yoga and movement being physical and connection-based, it was hard adjusting to and noticing the benefit of my practice through a screen,” says Gatlin. “I also experienced distraction, worry and stress like the rest of the world and so studying and self-directed movement became a challenge. Everything moved to a virtual platform, and I felt a little robbed of the experience I thought I had signed up for.”

Despite the struggles of being in a certificate program during this global pandemic, it didn’t stop Gatlin from pursuing even more of an education with yoga.

After completing her 200-hour training and experiencing a disconnection from the way movement had served her before, she began to feel as though yoga has a greater impact on her when she is able to practice it in-studio.

“In February, I began running the Instagram account for The Cure Studios in Salisbury, Mass.,” says Gatlin. “As my work on that continued, the studio owner offered me free tuition to continue my practice and education for the 300- hour so I could learn and expand more of my interest with breathwork and meditation.”

Gatlin says that deciding to take part in another program at this time wasn’t too difficult of a decision because she now knew what to expect.

“I’m not hesitant in signing up for this training program,” says Gatlin “but I probably wouldn’t have signed up for my 200-hour if I had known there would be a pandemic. I don’t regret doing it, but I wasn’t prepared for it to be virtual and I think that was disruptive to my learning process.”

Another adult learner who is using this time to refine her skills and enhance her resume is Bianca Perella who is a certified personal trainer in Hyannis, Mass. Perella is taking advantage of the global shutdown by continuing her fitness training and coming up with a business plan for her very own business someday.

“Now isn’t the time to just give up,” says Perella. “It’s the time to get moving and be creative. It’s a time for problem-solving and coming up with solutions that people will want or need. For me, that lies in the fitness industry.”

While business hasn’t been exactly booming, Perella has continued to train her clients over Facetime during the pandemic and is dedicating much of her time to more education on training for herself in order to become the best personal trainer that she can be.

“Who knows if things will ever go back to the way they were,” says Perella. “It’s so important that we stay educated, stay versatile, and learn to adapt when our environments change, whether it means going to school for a degree or picking up a new skill through a certificate program as I’m doing.”

Bianca Perella continues her fitness training virtually during COVID-19, Photo credit:

Perella says that personal training programs are not cheap but that she believes it’s worth the investment at this time.

For Gatlin, she says that she believes her certificate program will definitely benefit her in the long run.

“I’m very grateful that this wasn’t something that was outright canceled, and it let me explore new methods of healing and wellness I might not have otherwise looked into,” Gatlin says. “I also think it tested my resilience in a new way. If you have the time, expanding your knowledge in skills or areas of interest is a great way to make the most of these uncertain times and I recommend trying anything available.”