8,000 districts point to 5 trends in instructional offerings

Nat Malkus March 2, 2021

Originally published at AEI.org.

It’s been almost one year since schools first shuttered, and the debate on how they should respond to the ongoing pandemic is as contested as ever. Education leaders face ever-shifting demands as they attempt to gauge and accommodate the volatile and contradictory opinions of parents, teachers, and the public at large. At the same time, the information on how districts are operating remains in constant flux, making it hard to keep up how schools are responding as the pandemic continues.   

The Return to Learn Tracker (R2L) we launched captures the instructional landscape each week, shedding light on how the pandemic continues to impact schools and students. The R2L tracker monitors over 8,000 public school districts’ instructional statuses on a weekly basis and presents the data by various district characteristics. This R2L tracker categorizes school districts with three or more schools according to whether instruction is available fully remote, full in-person, or in a hybrid format, providing a weekly snapshot of how districts are responding and insight into trends over time.

This week, the R2L published data that track how districts have changed from early-November to mid-February in response to COVID-19. For a comprehensive view of the R2L data, you can visit the dashboard. Here, I’ll focus on five trends in particular. 

Political lines draw stark differences in districts’ instructional offerings. Districts in counties that voted for Biden are far more likely to have been fully remote or solidly hybrid for most of the year. By contrast, Trump districts are far more likely to have been fully in-person throughout the school year. As of February 15, districts in counties that voted for Biden are over three times more likely to be fully remote (30 percent of districts) compared to districts in counties that voted for Trump (9 percent of districts).

High poverty, urban, and high broadband districts are more likely to be fully remote. High poverty districts have higher rates of offering fully in-person instruction and fully remote instruction, whereas low poverty districts are more often hybrid. Instruction also differs by urbanicity. Twice as many rural districts offer fully in-person instruction (45 percent) than do urban districts (22 percent). Infrastructure limitations also play a role, with high broadband districts offering more fully remote instruction (21 percent) compared to low broadband districts (12 percent).

Many districts are, in fact, open, and a lot started the year that way. More districts offer fully in-person instruction than may be assumed from the media coverage, which often emphasizes remote-only districts. In fact, over one third of districts were open with an option for fully in-person instruction five days per week as of February 15. Just under one half of districts are offering some in-person instruction in a hybrid model — where all students have an option for part-week in-person instruction or where some grades return to buildings for some in-person instruction while other grades don’t. This leaves less than one in five districts that are fully remote. 

The New Year brings an increasing shift towards more in-person instruction. Since early January, remote-only instruction has dropped by almost one third. This trend is the reverse of what happened during the early winter surge in COVID-19 cases. Over the course of November and December, when holidays coincided with soaring COVID case rates, remote-only districts increased from about 20 percent to over one quarter of districts.

Finally, states differ on how “aggressive” or “cautious” their reopenings are, relative to COVID-19 rates. R2L categorizes aggressive districts as those that are open fully in-person with a seven-day average of 25 daily cases per 100,000 population or higher in a given week. The states with the top five most aggressive reopenings (in order) are Florida, Arkansas, Texas, South Carolina, and Alabama. Cautious districts, by contrast, are those that are fully remote in an area with a seven-day average of 12.5 daily cases per 100,000. As of February 15, the top five states with the most cautious districts are Oregon, Maryland, Alaska, Washington, and New Mexico.

As the pandemic and school year continue to unfold, so will districts’ instructional offerings. With fluctuating COVID-19 cases, growing vaccine distributions, and shifting policies, districts will continue to adapt and change. As such, we are busy now updating the data with the most recent changes. Follow along here to stay updated each week on the state of the nations’ schools as they complete this tumultuous school year.