School & District Management

Most Principals, District Leaders Predict Their Schools Will Be Fully In-Person This Fall

By Holly Kurtz — March 04, 2021 5 min read
Assistant Principal Janette Van Gelderen, left, welcomes students at Newhall Elementary in Santa Clarita, Calif on Feb. 25, 2021. California's public schools could get $6.6 billion from the state Legislature if they return to in-person instruction by the end of March, according to a new agreement announced Monday, March 1, 2021, between Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state's legislative leaders.

The current rate of in-school instruction is continuing to rise as most educators predict their schools will be fully in-person next fall, a new EdWeek Research Center survey shows.

Most of the teachers who took the survey reported that, compared with prior to the pandemic, they are spending more time on review and on addressing basic, essential academic standards; district leaders said that the frequency of COVID-19 testing in schools is inching up; and teachers, principals, and district leaders predict that one surprisingly specific pandemic-era change—enhanced cleaning and ventilation protocols—may be here to stay.

The nationally representative, online questionnaire was administered February 24-26 to 1,196 educators, including 629 teachers, 265 principals, and 302 district leaders. It’s the latest in a series of monthly surveys the EdWeek Research Center has been conducting on the pandemic’s impact on schools and other timely topics.

Most School and District Leaders Expect to Offer All Instruction In-Person in 2021-22

Just 1 percent of principals and district leaders expect their districts or schools to be fully remote when schools reopen for the 2021-22 school year.

Roughly 2 out of 3 say they’ll only offer in-person instruction. The remainder predict they’ll provide a mixture of in-person and remote learning.

School and district leaders who expect to offer in-person-only instruction without a remote option are significantly more likely to:

• Work in private schools/networks
• Work in smaller school districts
• Work in districts with smaller shares of students from lower-income families
• Work in districts with smaller shares of students of color
• Work in districts where all instruction is currently in-person

Rate of In-Person Learning Continues to Inch Upward

Twenty-six percent of district leaders reported on this most recent survey that their districts are providing all instruction in person, up from 20 percent the last time the EdWeek Research Center asked this question a month earlier in January, and up from 13 percent in August.

Still, the majority of district administrators (69 percent) say they are implementing a combination of in-person and remote learning. Throughout the school year, the most common hybrid learning model has been to offer families a choice of all-remote or all-in-person learning.

Just 5 percent of district leaders say all their instruction is fully remote, down from a 2020-21 school year high in August of 23 percent.

However, because the largest districts are more likely to provide fully remote instruction, the share of students experiencing this mode is much higher than 5 percent.

As has been the case since the beginning of the school year, students of color are significantly more likely to be learning at home: In districts where students of color comprise three quarters or more of enrollment, 1 in 3 district leaders say all instruction is remote, compared with none in districts where at least 90 percent of the students are white.

Teachers Emphasize Review and Essential Academic Standards

Since the pandemic started, most teachers say they’re spending more time on review and basic, essential standards. However, the focus of instruction varies by instructional model (in-person versus remote), district demographics, and grade level.

For instance, 61 percent of teachers in fully remote districts are spending more time on review, compared with roughly 50 percent in districts where all learning takes place in person or where a hybrid model is provided. In addition, 60 percent of elementary teachers are focusing more on review, compared with 55 percent in middle school and 44 percent at the high school level.

Teachers in fully remote districts are also more likely to say they’ve increased their focus on basic, essential standards. Seventy-two percent say this has become a bigger focus, compared with roughly half their peers in districts that offer fully in-person or hybrid models. Basic, essential standards have also received more attention during the pandemic from teachers in districts where students of color comprise three quarters or more of the enrollment, in the Southern United States, and in elementary schools.

COVID-19 Testing On the Rise in Schools

Nearly 1 in 3 district leaders say they are testing at least some employees for COVID-19—or will be when in-person instruction resumes. That’s up from 17 percent the last time the EdWeek Research Center asked about pandemic safety protocols in October.

Student COVID-19 testing is also on the rise, up from 7 percent of district leaders four months earlier to 16 percent in February. Although the vast majority of district leaders report that student and employee masks are required—or will be when in-person learning resumes—social distancing is less common. Sixty-three percent say they do or will require social distancing of at least six feet in school, and just 26 percent say six-foot distances are or will be maintained on school buses. Those figures are roughly the same as they were in October.

With the onset of winter cold, the amount of outdoor instruction is down, declining from 40 percent of district leaders in the fall to 23 percent in February, according to the survey.

Student Tech Access, Cleaning/Ventilation Priorities Likely to Survive Pandemic

The pandemic has introduced many changes to K-12 education. With vaccines now available, observers are now increasingly asking which modifications are most likely to remain when life returns to a new normal.

Most teachers, principals, and district leaders predict that, post-pandemic, they will continue to work toward ensuring that all students have the technology necessary to complete schoolwork at home. Most also expect that students will have a wider array of remote learning options available than they did prior to the pandemic.

That doesn’t mean educators themselves will work from home: Just 20 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders predict that some educators will work full-time from home once the pandemic ends. Most educators also expect a return to in-person meetings, many of which are now being held online. Educators were split when asked to predict the fate of in-person professional development.

Interestingly, one set of very pandemic-specific changes may be here to stay: Seventy-three percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders say that enhanced cleaning and ventilation protocols will likely survive the pandemic.

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