Teaching & Learning

Districts Retreat to Remote Learning Even as Biden Calls for Reopening Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — January 14, 2021 4 min read
Maddi Dale focuses on her remote French class in her bedroom in Lake Oswego, Ore., on Oct. 30, 2020.

President-elect Joe Biden has made reopening school buildings a top priority, but districts are going in the opposite direction, retreating into all-remote instruction as COVID-19 levels soar in their communities, according to new data set for release Thursday.

A new analysis by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which tracks how school districts are conducting instruction during the pandemic, found that between early November and late December, the share of school districts offering only remote instruction jumped 10 percentage points.

In the nationally representative sample of 477 districts the Center monitors, 21.2 percent were providing all instruction remotely in early November. By late December, that figure rose to 31.7 percent.

The shift isn’t surprising, given the dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases all over the country this fall and early winter. But it offers a sobering picture for the incoming president, who has included opening most K-8 schools for in-person instruction a top priority for his first 100 days in office.

“This data certainly puts a very fine point on the challenge Biden faces,” said Robin Lake, CRPE’s executive director. “What they’ll be facing is a race: how fast can they get the vaccine out to teachers? It looks daunting.”

The shift to remote learning accelerates

CRPE’s data is echoed elsewhere.

Burbio, another organization that’s been tracking schools’ instructional modes, found that as of Jan. 13, 49.5 percent of K-12 students nationwide are attending schools that offer only one mode of instruction: virtual learning. That figure was 37.2 percent on Nov. 2.

It rose as high as 55 percent on Jan. 10, but that was driven mostly by a brief period in which some schools chose to be remote-only after the holidays, said Dennis Roche, who oversees the project, which follows 1,200 districts.

EdWeek also collected reports of districts’ and states’ shifts to all-remote teaching. Our database is informal and incomplete, but it shows that 3 million more students were learning in remote-only mode in late December than in mid November because of district—or state—mandates.

The analysis conducted by CRPE showed that about 20 percent of districts shifted their instructional model in November. Of those, a small slice—3.6 percent—expanded in-person instruction, while 15 percent, predominantly urban districts, moved in the other direction, deeper into remote learning. The remaining 81.4 percent made no change in their model.

District leaders are grappling with these nitty-gritty realities in varied ways, depending on the virus levels, parent demand, staff availability, and other factors in their communities.

Pedro Martinez, the superintendent of the San Antonio Independent school district, said Wednesday that test-positivity rates in his community currently hover around 20 percent, but the district has managed to slowly expand in-person learning, so that now nearly one-third of students get some face-to-face instruction.

Several strategies have been crucial to that expansion, Martinez said during a call with reporters hosted by the superintendents’ group Chiefs for Change. One is ramping up gradually from all-remote to partial in-person instruction. Another is weekly COVID-19 testing. San Antonio has conducted 30,000 tests of students and staff, starting with some schools and slowly expanding to two-thirds, and has found only a 1 percent positivity rate, he said.

Martinez and several other superintendents on the call urged state and local officials to give teachers high priority for vaccination, and to use their districts as community vaccination sites.

“School districts are ready to be part of the solution,” Martinez said.

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Chiefs for Change is urging federal, state and local officials to create coordinated strategies for vaccination, testing, contact tracing, and virus mitigation in schools so teachers, families and students all get accurate, consistent information, and schools can build trust to reopen safely.

In Washington state’s Highline school district, only 150 of the district’s 17,500 students, those with the most severe special needs, have been allowed to come into schools since March, Superintendent Susan Enfield said on the call.

But that number will be rising, since the state’s governor gave schools permission to phase in a return ofelementary students. Highline aims to bring preK-1st graders back on March 1, and phase in the rest of its K-5 students. But to do that successfully, she said, staff and students need reliable information, and that effort has been hobbled by the lack of clear federal guidance.

“Our teachers are inundated with conflicting information,” Enfield said. “Helping people move away from information that was accurate two months ago, three, four, six months ago, versus today, is incredibly challenging.”

Federal officials recommend giving teachers a high priority for vaccinations, but it’s ultimately up to states to decide the priority groups in their vaccination campaigns, and state plans vary. The vaccine rollout has also been widely criticized for being slow and uneven.

But it’s the vaccines, Enfield said, that will “significantly accelerate” districts’ ability to bring students back to classroom.

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