This spring, schools steadily increased the amount of in-person instruction available to students, but new research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds the return looked different for white students and students of color.
“What we are seeing here is a movement generally into more in-person for all groups, but the increases for students of color tend to be from virtual to hybrid, and for white students, into full in-person,” said Emily Oster, a Brown University researcher and lead author of the study. “The result is a widening of the full, in-person gap.”
Oster and her colleagues scoured school district websites, Facebook pages, and other public data every week from September 2020 to April 2021 to track changes in the kinds of instruction offered at some 1,200 districts in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, accounting for 46 percent of all K-12 public school students. Amid changing CDC guidance and state rules on how schools should operate safely during the periodic waves of the pandemic, the researchers logged when the schools offered fully remote, hybrid, and fully in-person instruction, as well as what grade spans and demographic groups of students had access to different kinds of instruction.
They found that beginning in January, schools began phasing out access to virtual-only learning for students across all grade spans and racial groups. The percentage of white students with access to in-person, full-time classes rose from 38 percent to nearly 75 percent from January to April, with Black students’ access rising from about 32 percent to more than 63 percent during that time, and Hispanic students’ access rising from just under 36 percent to close to 60 percent.
Yet over the same period, access to hybrid schooling rose 9.5 percentage points for white students, but 23 percentage points for Hispanic students and close to 22 percentage points for Black students. As of April, 30 percent of Black students and nearly a third of Hispanic students attended a school using hybrid instruction, compared to less than a quarter of white students.
In particular, the new study found racial gaps in access to full-time, in-person classes widened most for middle and high school students. Among grades K-5, the gap in access to full-time, in-person classes between white students and students of color rose nearly 7 percentage points, to just over 15 percent, from January to April 2021. By contrast, that racial access gap widened by more than 11 percentage points in the middle grades, and nearly 13 percentage points for high school students. Both secondary grade levels had access gaps of between 13.8 percent and 14.8 percent by the end of the study period.
That could raise pressure on the schools that serve these students, because prior studies by the CDC and others suggest hybrid schooling still takes an emotional and health toll on students and their families. Back in March, a separate CDC study found that across an array of measures, the children and parents participating in virtual or hybrid instruction showed significantly worse physical and mental well-being than those who participated in fully in-person instruction. Those harmful effects include children who got less exercise and time outside and had worse mental health and parents who reported more job concerns, difficulty sleeping, and emotional distress, among other problems.
“Schools are central to supporting children and families, providing not only education, but also opportunities to engage in activities to support healthy development and access to social, mental health, and physical health services, which can buffer stress and mitigate negative outcomes,” conclude the authors led by Jorge Verlenden of the CDC’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Team and its Division of Adolescent and School Health. “However, the pandemic is disrupting many school-based services, increasing parental responsibilities and stress, and potentially affecting long-term health outcomes for parents and children alike, especially among families at risk for negative health outcomes from social and environmental factors. ... Virtual instruction might present more risks than does in-person instruction related to child and parental mental and emotional health.”
Moreover, a similar survey of schools by the National Center for Education Statistics has found many schools have not prioritized high-need students such as English-learners or students with disabilities when moving students to fully in-person classes. For students attending hybrid classes, the amount of actual in-person instruction has varied considerably from state to state and district to district. NCES found the majority of 4th and 8th grade students in hybrid instruction get four hours of instruction per day or less.
The CDC researchers echoed calls by governors and the Biden administration for all schools to move to fully in-person instruction by the start of the 2021-22 school year.
“School leaders should focus on providing safety-optimized in-person learning options across grade levels in all geographic areas,” they concluded, but also warned that communities will have to continue to reduce community infection rates and improve vaccination rates for those ages 12 and older, as no vaccines have yet been approved to protect younger children.