School & District Management From Our Research Center

As Delta Variant Spreads, Twice as Many K-12 Leaders Pivot to Hybrid Learning

By Holly Kurtz — August 09, 2021 4 min read
First-grade teacher Megan Garner-Jones, left, and Principal Cynthia Eisner silent clap for their students participating remotely and in-person at School 16, in Yonkers, N.Y., on Oct. 20, 2020.
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Hybrid learning is on the rise—again. Mask requirements may be more common in districts serving higher concentrations of students of color. And educator COVID-19 vaccination rates, though higher than the U.S. average, are lagging in certain parts of the country.

These are just a few of the findings from the 20th nationally-representative, online survey the EdWeek Research Center has fielded during the pandemic to track practices and perceptions of K-12 educators during this difficult time. A total of 1,242 educators (148 district leaders, 88 principals, and 1,006 teachers) participated in this most recent survey, which was conducted July 28 to Aug. 4.

District and school leaders’ plans for hybrid learning double since June

As the COVID-19 Delta variant has spread rapidly across the country over the summer months, a rising percentage of district leaders are saying they’re planning to offer both remote and in-person learning, so-called hybrid learning.

Twenty percent of school and district leaders who’ve decided on their reopening plans now report that they’ll adopt hybrid models, up from 10 percent a month earlier. Most continue to report that a relatively small share of students (10 percent or less) are expected to participate in remote instruction.

The share of leaders planning on full-time remote learning remains very low at 0.5 percent.

Compared with their peers in districts serving more-affluent populations, leaders in districts where the majority of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals are more than twice as likely to report they will start the school year with hybrid instructional models (12 percent versus 28 percent).

Mask requirements more common for students of color

With COVID-19 patients once again filling hospitals, district leaders and principals are grappling with the politically charged decision about whether to require masks at the start of the 2021-22 school year. As of the first week of August, roughly a third of school and district administrators will require masks of at least some or all employees and students, a third won’t require anyone to wear masks, and a third remain undecided.

Compared with their peers in districts where half or more of the students are white, administrators in districts where the majority of the enrollment is students of color are nearly four times as likely to say students and staff alike will be required to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status (11 percent vs. 41 percent).

Administrators in “majority-minority” districts are roughly half as likely to say no one will be required to wear masks when compared with their colleagues in districts where half or more students are white (20 percent vs. 38 percent). This emphasis on mask-wearing in districts serving larger shares of students of color is likely related to the relatively higher rates of COVID-related hospitalization and mortality for people who are Black, Latinx, Native American, and Native Alaskan.

Pandemic-related changes to grading policies unlikely to persist

In theory, the pandemic could have been a major opportunity to revamp grading policies as changes adopted to cope with the disruptions and realities of remote learning led to a broader rethinking of the purposes and philosophies of traditional approaches.

However, while 39 percent of school and district leaders say they did change grading policies as a result of the pandemic, just 5 percent say those changes will be permanent.

Leaders who said their districts did make changes (temporary or permanent) were most likely to report that the revised policies provided additional opportunities for students to improve their grades by revising work. Other common changes included removing penalties for late work and switching the focus of grading from completing a certain quantity of work to mastering standards, an approach known as competency-based learning.

Educator COVID-19 vaccine rates lag in Southern, high-poverty, rural areas

Throughout the nation, the vast majority of educators have been vaccinated against COVID-19 now for several months. Overall, 86 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders now say they’re fully vaccinated. An additional 1 percent are partially vaccinated. Three percent plan to get vaccinated. And 10 percent do not plan to get vaccines.

However, as with the general population, educator vaccination rates vary by region, from a low of 79 percent in the South to 91 percent in the Northeast and Western United States.

There are also disparities in the share of fully vaccinated educators between the lowest-poverty districts (91 percent) and the highest-poverty districts (76 percent). Nearly 1 in 5 educators in the nation’s highest-poverty districts say they have no plans to get vaccinated.

And, while 95 percent of urban educators and 90 percent of their suburban peers are fully vaccinated, those rates fall to 81 percent in rural communities.

In the highest-poverty rural Southern school districts, 68 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders are fully vaccinated.

However, even in those districts, educator vaccination rates are higher than rates for the United States as a whole, where 58 percent of vaccine-eligible people are fully vaccinated.

District leaders are embracing virtual events during the pandemic

As the pandemic has continued to persist, educators are immersing themselves in virtual events, especially at the administrative level.

More than half of district leaders (55 percent), 46 percent of school leaders, and 24 percent of teachers say they have been attending at least four virtual events a month during the pandemic. And that doesn’t even count meetings with their work colleagues.

More than 1 in 5 district leaders report attending more than ten virtual events each month.

A version of this article appeared in the August 25, 2021 edition of Education Week

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