The country’s public school system closed in on nearly 100% of K-8 schools offering some type of in-person instruction in April, according to new federal data, more than a year after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered classrooms across the country for more than 50 million children.
The gains were driven by a confluence of circumstances: the increasing availability of vaccines for teachers, staff and older students, the change in guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding social distancing, a renewed call from national teachers union leaders to reopen for in-person learning and an increasingly forceful message from the Biden administration that students need to be back in classrooms.
Education Department officials called the increase “remarkable,” and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona – in his most positive statement on school reopening progress to date – claimed victory over what just four months ago seemed to many like an intractable problem.
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“Today’s data reaffirms what we’ve been seeing and hearing for months – that we’ve met and exceeded President Biden’s goal of reopening the majority of K-8 schools, and that as a nation we continue to make significant progress in reopening as many schools as possible before the summer,” the secretary said in a statement.
Ninety-six percent of public elementary and middle schools, or schools with a grade four or eight, were open for hybrid or full-time in-person learning in April – up 7 percentage points since March. Nearly 60% were open for in-person instruction full time to all students and those offering only remote instruction dropped to 4%.
Meanwhile, 74% of public school fourth-graders were enrolled in person, full time or through hybrid instruction in April – up 10 percentage points since March – with 51% enrolled in person, full time. Among public school eighth-graders, 67% were enrolled in person, full time or through hybrid instruction – up 9 percentage points since March – with 41% enrolled in-person full time.
For both grades, every region of the country experienced significant increases in enrolling students in person, full time.
The latest tranche of data on how students in fourth and eighth grades received education during April was collected by the Institute for Education Sciences between May 19 and June 2 from more than 4,000 schools. The data is being collected monthly throughout the remainder of the school year so that policymakers have a better understanding of which communities were hit hardest by the pandemic and which students will need the most academic, social and emotional support upon returning to classrooms.
“April marked the first time since we began tracking the reopening of schools that at least half of the nation’s fourth-graders were enrolled in full-time in-person instruction, and the percentage of students enrolled in remote instruction continued to decline,” James Woodworth, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said.
“The percentage of schools offering remote instruction only has dropped to 4 percent,” he said. “This is a remarkable change from January when nearly a quarter of schools still offered only remote instruction.”
Yet, as previous monthly data tranches showed, belying the increases in returning students to classrooms is a stubborn racial gap that makes clear significantly more white students had access to in-person instruction than Black, Hispanic and Asian students.
Just 14% of white students in grade four were still learning remotely in April compared to 53% of Asian students, 38% of Black students and 30% of Hispanic students. And in grade eight, 19% of white students were still learning remotely compared to 60% of Asian students, 46% of Black students and 43% of Hispanic students.
“We should celebrate the substantial progress on a return to normalcy while also redoubling our efforts to ensure that the most high-need students, students who have already borne the brunt of the coronavirus and its effects, don’t get left behind,” Mark Schneider, the director of the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences, said.
Some of the discrepancies can be explained by capacity, staffing and facilities woes – where even within one district, the schools in poorer neighborhoods, which tend to enroll more students of color, aren’t as equipped as schools in more affluent neighborhoods. A big part of the explanation is also that more families of color are choosing to stick with virtual learning, even when they have the option of returning to classrooms – both because their communities have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus and because, against the backdrop of a national reckoning over racism and systemic inequality, they say they never felt safe in those schools even prior to the pandemic.
Cardona conceded that racial gap between who is accessing in-person learning remains troubling and that school leaders need to do everything they can to rebuild trust among parents who, for whatever reason, don’t feel like their children are safe in school.
“While today’s data show that for the first time this year more Black and Hispanic fourth graders were attending school in-person full-time in April than attending fully remote, we have more work to do to ensure that Black, Hispanic, and Asian students have equal access to in-person learning options as their white peers, and that parents and students feel confident again learning inside school buildings,” he said.
The secretary also said that additional…
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