School & District Management

Are Schools Ready to Reopen Full-Time This Fall? Federal Data Show Spotty Progress

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 08, 2021 4 min read
Student attending class from a remote location.
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Clarification: An earlier version of this story did not note that statistics on teacher vaccination status are only available for schools that reported data.

While nearly all schools had moved to offer at least some in-person instruction this spring, new federal data suggest some schools were significantly farther along than others in getting all students back on campus full time.

In the last of five monthly federal surveys conducted this spring and summer, the National Center for Education Statistics found close to three-quarters of the nation’s 4th and 8th grade students were receiving at least some in-person instruction by the end of the year, with 52 percent of 4th graders and 46 percent of 8th graders attending in person five days a week.

On closer inspection, however, the data show that only white students had a majority attending full-time, in-person in both primary and middle schools. For the most part students of color still attended school partly or fully remote, with limited live interactions with teachers—particularly in schools in towns and smaller rural communities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned that racial gaps in access to in-person learning have in some cases even widened this spring, particularly for older students.

Asian-American students remained the group least likely to return to in-person instruction of any kind, with more than half still learning entirely online and little more than 1 in 4 on campus five days a week when the school year drew to a close. Experts have noted higher concern from Asian-American parents about the safety of returning their students to school, both in the risk of exposure to the coronavirus and from potential bullying and hate crimes against Asian-American students, which spiked in the months after the pandemic began in Wuhan, China.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona expressed confidence that schools will all be on the same page by the end of summer.

“It remains my expectation that in the upcoming academic year, all schools will offer full-time, in-person learning opportunities five days a week to every student. Today’s data shows that this goal is more than within reach—as long as schools continue to take key prevention and mitigation precautions as we recover and reemerge from the coronavirus pandemic,” Cardona said in a statement on the results.

“Educators and school leaders across the country are already proving that students can safely learn and thrive inside their classrooms, and that as a nation, we can provide the social, emotional, academic, and mental health supports to deliver on the promise of an excellent and equitable education for every child,” he said.

Campus safety from outbreaks are still a concern

By the end of May, more than half of primary and elementary students attended schools that did not know the vaccination status of their teachers, and only about 1 in 5 of the remaining students attended a primary or middle school where all or nearly all of their teachers had received at least one dose of vaccine to protect against SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Most of the vaccines require two doses, set a month apart, followed by a two-week buffer period, so schools that got a late start may have difficulty ensuring all their staff are protected before reopening in-person classes this fall.

Vaccines for students younger than 12 are unlikely to be distributed before the start of school, and recent studies suggest immunizing all adults and older students and universal masking remain the most effective ways to prevent campus outbreaks, particularly as highly transmissible new strains of the coronavirus gain traction.

This was the final installment of NCES’s first pandemic-related school study, which surveyed staff from a nationally representative sample of 2,200 schools with a 4th grade and 2,100 schools including an 8th grade. Researchers looked at how schools were reopening and instructing students each month from January through May.

Chris Chapman, the statistics agency’s associate commissioner for sample surveys, announced that in August, it will launch a new, expanded study of school and district staff from 1,200 elementary, middle, and high schools. The IES School Pulse Panel will continue to track to what extent schools continue to use remote and hybrid instruction, as well as information on staffing, what mental health and special education supports schools provide, how they are helping students recover from learning loss, and the strategies they are using to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks as they reopen.

“The overall numbers from May are better than anyone could have reasonably expected when we launched this survey earlier this year,” said Mark Schneider, the director of the Institute of Education Sciences, the Education Department’s research agency, which oversees NCES. “Reopening schools and welcoming back students was the first step, but the hardest work is still to come. We must do all we can as a nation to ensure that all students, especially the most high-need students who have already borne the brunt of the coronavirus and its effects, recover from any learning losses.”

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