Student Well-Being What the Research Says

Most Schools Are Teaching in Person This School Year, Latest Fed Data Say

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 17, 2021 4 min read
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Nearly all public elementary and secondary schools are back to full-time, in-person instruction during the pandemic, but many continue to cope with staffing shortages and coronavirus outbreaks that force students to stay home from school.

As of this fall, nearly all public schools—from cities to rural districts—have brought students back to class, though about a third continue to offer remote instruction for at least some students, according to new data from federal surveys taken from September through December and released last week.

While students of color were significantly more likely than white students to attend virtual classes even at the end of last school year, those racial gaps have closed. Ninety-nine percent of 4th and 8th graders in schools serving populations that are overwhelmingly white or overwhelmingly students of color use in-person instruction. However, there was greater potential for sampling error in the data for students of specific races. Students in schools with more-diverse racial demographics were more likely to use a hybrid of virtual and in-person instruction.

“As a nation, we’re at a place where we don’t have to choose between reducing our children’s risk of COVID-19 and keeping them connected to the supports that they need—and to which they often only have access—in school,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona about the new data.

Even though most students no longer learn remotely, the technology supports for students at home have continued. More than 9 in 10 schools still provide laptops or other devices to students who need them, and 7 in 10 provide Wi-Fi access for students outside of school.

The new data come from two separate surveys. The Institute of Education Sciences continues to collect data on pandemic-era instruction from 7,400 public schools serving 4th and 8th graders who participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (which it began collecting last spring), but this September the agency also partnered with the U.S. Census Bureau to add the School Pulse Panel, a nationally representative survey of 2,400 elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as those with combined grades. While the two surveys ask similar questions, they involve different groups of schools and cannot be directly compared. Changes in the NAEP survey this fall also make it difficult to compare how schools have shifted instruction since last school year.

About 1 in 10 school leaders reported they expected to need to make changes in their grading policies or testing mandates because of learning challenges during the pandemic, and more than 1 in 5 said they would need to change how they decide whether or not to promote students to the next grade.

Staffing, pandemic protection challenges persist

Cardona in part credited federal school support through the American Rescue Plan for helping schools return to in-person instruction this fall. One new study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests the aid could help high-poverty districts make up for learning loss during the pandemic with short-term, intensive tutoring and other interventions. However, in the wave of new infections caused by the highly infectious Delta variant of the pandemic that hit this summer, schools used federal aid to fill holes in support staff and help trace and control outbreaks.

In the latest federal data, 38 percent of principals reported they have more staff vacancies than usual, with 30 percent saying they had six or more teaching positions open before the start of the school year.

Among principals looking to hire, 28 percent say they were having difficulty finding general elementary teachers, and about a quarter of those looking for math teachers said it was very or somewhat difficult finding staff. Mental health professionals, such as counselors, also seemed in shorter supply: 29 percent of principals with an opening for a mental health professional said they were having some or a lot of trouble hiring them.

Moreover, while nearly 77 percent of Americans ages 5 and older now have had at least one dose of vaccines to protect against COVID-19, little more than half of teenagers 12-17 and just over 10 percent of younger students received a full two-dose vaccine course, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Schools continue to have varied policies around vaccination, masking, and other protective practices for staff, students, and parents.

For example, while more than 7 in 10 schools reported asking students to stay home if they have been exposed to COVID-19, some states discourage or even bar schools from requiring students or staff to quarantine. The IES data show roughly 28 percent of schools conduct COVID-19 testing of students. Ongoing debates about how schools should mitigate against outbreaks could complicate schools’ response to a winter surge expected in part due to Omicron, a new coronavirus variant considered even more infectious than Delta.

IES plans to release additional data on staffing and instructional supports in early 2022.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as Most Schools Are Teaching in Person This School Year, Latest Fed Data Say


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