School & District Management From Our Research Center

In-Person Learning Expands, Student Absences Up, Teachers Work Longer, Survey Shows

By Holly Kurtz — October 15, 2020 7 min read
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As schools struggle to establish some sense of normalcy for students, educators, and parents during the pandemic, the picture of K-12 education is looking very different than it did last spring, when nearly all schools were teaching remotely. Full-time in-person instruction is now taking place in more schools, as are models that feature both face-to-face and virtual learning. Fully remote instruction, at least for now, is losing ground.

At the same time, student absence rates are rising, even where kids have returned to school buildings; teachers are working longer hours than they were in the spring; and coronavirus testing of employees and even students is more common this fall than it was several months ago.

Those are just some of the key findings of the EdWeek Research Center’s monthly coronavirus survey. The nationally representative, online survey was administered Sept. 30 to Oct. 8. A total of 790 K-12 educators responded, including 251 district leaders, 169 principals, and 370 teachers.

Face-to-Face and Hybrid Models Gain Ground

Sixteen percent of district leaders report that they are providing full-time in-person instruction, up from 13 percent when the EdWeek Research Center last asked that question in August. Support for in-person learning is also up since August: 64 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders say they support this mode of learning during the pandemic, compared with 61 percent in August, and 49 percent in July.

Ninety percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders whose schools are offering full-time in-person instruction support this approach. However, large divisions remain. Full-time in-person learning is significantly more popular among administrators than teachers. It also receives more support from white educators than from Black educators, from rural educators than urban educators, and from educators who work in private schools and in majority-white school districts.

In the meantime, full-time remote instruction has lost some ground.

Fifteen percent of district leaders are providing this form of instruction, down from 23 percent in August. Among teachers, principals, and district leaders, support for full-time remote learning declined from 55 percent to 49 percent between August and early October, although 69 percent of educators who are engaging in this model also support it. Supporters of full-time remote instruction are more likely to be Black employees of urban districts where the majority of the students are people of color.

Overall, a hybrid of remote and in-person instruction is by far the most common model in use right now, with 69 percent of district leaders saying they have adopted this approach, up from 64 percent in August. Now, as in August, the most common form of hybrid instruction is one in which families choose either 100 percent remote or 100 percent in-person learning. Thirty-seven percent of district leaders say they use this choice-based model.

Student Absence Rates Have Increased, Even for In-Person Instruction

Daily student absence rates have nearly doubled from an average of 6 percent prior to the pandemic to 10 percent this fall, teachers, principals, and district leaders report.

Remote learning is not entirely to blame for the increase. Even in districts that only offer full-time in-person instruction, the rate has increased to 8 percent, educators say. But the rate is highest in districts doing full-time remote learning (12 percent), compared with those doing a mixture of virtual and in-person instruction (10 percent).

Taking attendance in full-time remote learning environments is less straightforward than it might be in an in-person classroom. But 94 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders using this model say that students do face consequences for unexcused absences from remote instruction. The most common consequences are relatively mild (a staff member reaches out to the student, parents are contacted). However, a quarter of educators say truancy officers are notified. And 16 percent say parents could face legal consequences for their children’s unexcused absences online.

Teachers Report Working 3 Hours More Daily Now Than in May

Teachers say they are working an average of 10 hours a day right now, up from seven hours when they were last asked that question on an EdWeek Research Center survey in early May. Prior to the pandemic, they said they were working nine hours a day, according to the May survey. There were no significant differences in the number of hours worked by teachers in full-time remote, full-time in-person, or hybrid schools.

Principals say they are working 10 hours a day while district leaders report putting in an average of nine hours daily. Administrators were not asked how many hours a day they were working in May.

Class Sizes Have Not Decreased for In-Person Learning

Smaller class sizes were supposed to be a key tenet of safe school reopenings because they can reduce the number of people who come into contact with infectious COVID cases while also facilitating social distancing.

Most teachers, principals, and district leaders offering a hybrid combination of remote/in-person instruction appear to be adhering to these guidelines. More than three quarters say that in-person classes are smaller today than they were during the fall of 2019. However, that share falls to less than half (40 percent) for their colleagues in districts and schools where all the instruction is in person.

Remote class sizes are more of a mixed bag. More than 1 in 3 teachers, principals, and district leaders providing both remote and in-person instruction say remote class sizes today are bigger than in-person class sizes in the fall of 2019. By contrast, less than 1 in 5 of their colleagues offering full-time remote instruction say the same.

Low-Income Kids and Students of Color More Likely to Experience Full-Time Remote Instruction

Full-time remote learning is more common in districts with larger shares of students of color and low-income families.

According to teachers, principals, and district leaders, full-time in-person learning is offered at more than 1 in 5 school districts in which 80 percent or more of the students are white. Just 8 percent of these districts are fully remote.

By contrast, in districts that are 30 percent or less white, 3 percent of educators say they offer full-time in-person instruction while 47 percent say instruction is entirely remote. Similarly, in the highest poverty districts where three quarters or more of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, 1 in 3 teachers, principals, and district leaders say learning is fully remote, compared with 13 percent of educators in lower-poverty districts.

More Districts May Test Employees and Students for COVID-19

Between August, when the EdWeek Research Center last asked the question, and early October, the share of district leaders reporting that they are, or will, be testing employees for COVID-19 increased from 7 percent to 17 percent. In addition, 7 percent say they are, or will, be testing students for the virus if in-person instruction occurs. That’s up from 2 percent in August.

Other in-person safety measures that have become more common since August include assigning students to small groups that they remain with all day, designating one-way hallways to reduce congestion, monitoring absence patterns, and supplying personal protective equipment to students and staff.

Camera Requirements for Students During Live Remote Learning

Cameras are nearly ubiquitous in districts and schools providing remote instruction, with 90 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders reporting that three quarters or more of their students have working cameras on the devices they use for school.

More than three quarters of teachers, principals, and district leaders whose schools or districts provide live remote instruction say that, if students have working cameras on their devices, they must keep them on during class.

However, rules do vary. Of the 77 percent who say cameras must be kept on, 42 percent say there’s wiggle room based on the age of the student, the preference of the student, and other considerations. An additional 17 percent report stricter rules in which cameras must be kept on unless parents request an exception. And 18 percent say cameras must be kept on, no exceptions allowed.

School districts with larger percentages of students of color have stricter policies than majority-white districts. Cameras are required—no exceptions allowed—by 15 percent of educators in districts where 80 percent or more of the students are white, compared with 31 percent of their colleagues in districts where the share of whites is 30 percent or less.

In addition, elementary teachers and principals are significantly more likely to require that cameras be kept on when compared with their high school peers (88 percent vs. 60 percent).

Sixty percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders say students face consequences if they turn off cameras during class. Parental notification is the most common consequence, followed by losing participation points/facing a lower grade, and being marked partially or fully absent.

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