School survey shows ‘critical gaps’ for in-person learning

Nearly half of U.S. elementary schools were open for full-time classroom learning as of last month, but
the share of students with in-person instruction has varied greatly by region and by race, with most
nonwhite students taught entirely online, according to a Biden administration survey.
For the White House, the results of the national survey released Wednesday mark the starting line for
President Joe Biden’s pledge to have most K-8 schools open full time in his first 100 days in office.
But they also show that he never had far to go to meet that goal.
Among schools that enroll fourth graders, 47% offered full-time classroom learning in February, while for
schools that teach eighth-graders, the figure was 46%. The results suggested that at least some students
weren’t opting in.
In total, about 76% of elementary and middle schools were open for in-person or hybrid learning,
according to the survey, while 24% offered remote learning only. The percentage of students spending at
least some time in the classroom has probably increased since February, when coronavirus rates were just
coming down from a national surge.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said the findings, while encouraging, also showed "critical
gaps" for in-person learning, especially for students of color.
"While schools continue to show us what’s possible as they work to open their doors and meet
students’ needs, we know that we still have a lot of ground to go," Cardona said. "We owe it
to our students — especially students in underserved communities and students with disabilities — to get
all our schools opened safely and to meet the social, emotional, mental health and academic needs of all
students."
Before Wednesday’s school reopening summit, the administration announced it was releasing $81 billion in
education assistance from the $1.9 trillion virus relief bill.
The survey findings establish a baseline data set that the administration plans to update each month to
show how many U.S. schools are teaching in-person, online or through a combination. The government did
not previously collect such information.
The findings are based on a survey of 3,500 public schools whose student bodies include fourth graders,
along with 3,500 schools that serve eighth graders. Forty-four states agreed to participate; six states
declined. The survey asked schools about their teaching methods as of February but gathered other data
as of January.
The survey casts new light on a period of particularly bitter debate in the school reopening process. In
January, officials in California, Chicago and other places were in stalemates with teachers over
reopening plans,. Vaccinations were often a sticking point.
Since January, the push to reopen has gained steam in many areas. The Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention issued a road map to reopening in February. This month, the CDC relaxed guidelines around
social distancing in schools. Under pressure from Biden, dozens of states are now focusing on giving
COVID-19 vaccines to teachers and other school staff.
As more schools invite students back to the classroom, many parents are conflicted, according to a poll
from The University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for
Public Affairs Research. It found that a majority of parents are at least somewhat concerned that
in-person instruction will lead to more people being infected, but a slightly larger share is at least
somewhat concerned that students will face setbacks in school because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to tracking school teaching methods, the federal survey also tracks how many students have
enrolled in each type of learning.
In January, the survey found, 38% of fourth graders enrolled in full-time, in-person learning, compared
with 28% of eighth graders. Larger shares of students were entirely remote, with 43% of fourth graders
and 48% of eighth graders learning away from school. It was not clear what share was learning online by
choice and how many students were in schools without in-person options.
There were stark differences based on where students live, reflecting the regional battles that have
played out as cities debate how and when to reopen schools.
In the South and Midwest, where schools were the quickest to reopen, just under 40% of eighth grade
students were enrolled full time in classroom instruction in January. In the West and Northeast, the
figure was about 10%.
Across all regions, students in rural areas and towns were far more likely to be back in the classroom
full time compared with students in cities and suburbs.
In a further illustration of the pandemic’s uneven impact, the survey found striking differences based on
students’ race. Among fourth graders, almost half of white students were learning fully in-person, with
just over one-quarter learning online. Among Black and Hispanic students, nearly 60% were learning
entirely remotely.
The difference was even wider among students of Asian descent, with 68% remote and just 15% attending
fully in-person.
Similar disparities have been uncovered in many cities, raising alarms among education advocates who fear
the pandemic is worsening racial inequities in education. The administration has pledged to confront
racial gaps in education and is urging schools to prioritize the issue as they spend the billions in
recently approved relief aid.
As of January, the survey also found that students with disabilities and those who are learning English
were not being brought back to the classroom at significantly higher rates than other students. Just 42%
of those with disabilities and 34% learning English were enrolled in full-time classroom learning,
compared with 38% of all students.
Even so, more than 40% of schools reported on the survey that they were giving priority to students with
disabilities, who often have more difficulty with remote learning.
Among students learning online, the amount of time spent with a live teacher also varied greatly, the
survey found. Roughly one-third of schools offered more than five hours a day of live instruction, but
another third offered two hours or less. Among schools serving eighth graders, 10% were offering no live
instruction at all.
The survey does not include high schools, which weren’t included in Biden’s reopening promise and pose
additional challenges as they work to reopen. Younger children are less likely to get seriously ill from
the coronavirus, and education experts say they have the greatest need for in-person learning.
The Education Department said it will issue updated data from the survey each month through July. The
information is published on a dashboard on the agency’s website.