Originally published at AEI.org
Thousands of students across the nation haven’t stepped foot in a school in over one year. “The seniors say it’s only one building with multiple floors,” said one LAUSD ninth grader, who has yet to see her high school. “I like to picture how it looks.” For many students, however, the days of remote learning are coming to an end. In fact, public schools crossed an important threshold this month: For the first time since school first shuttered, fewer than one in 10 K-12 school districts offer remote-only instruction.
Recent data from the Return to Learn Tracker (R2L) show that as of March 15, just 9 percent of school districts are fully remote. This marks the first time that the proportion of fully remote districts has crossed into the single digits in over a year. Simultaneously, more and more students are getting the option to attend class in-person five days per week. At the beginning of January, slightly over one quarter of districts offered in-person instruction five days per week. At mid-March, that number is up to 38 percent and continues to increase.
Despite growing opportunities for in-person instruction, there are still variations across demographics. R2L data reveal stark differences at the state-level. In California, for example, 45 percent of districts offer no option for in-person learning, though that number is falling fast. But other states are far ahead. In five — Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, Alabama, and Missouri — over 75 percent of districts give students the choice to attend class in person five days per week.
A number of states are shifting quickly to give more students the opportunity to enter back into the classrooms. At the beginning of March, over half of Arizona’s districts were fully remote. They were just one of two states in the nation where over half of the districts had no option for any in-person instruction. Just a few weeks later, over 45 percent of Arizona’s districts offer the opportunity for students to attend in-person instruction five days per week, and with pressure from Governor Doug Ducey, many more are slated to follow suit. States that are slow to open up their classrooms increasingly appear to be outliers in the nationwide shift towards more in-person instruction.
What factors are associated with differences in instruction across states? At least one appears to be broadband access. Districts in counties with low broadband access are far more likely to offer fully in-person instruction compared to districts in counties with high broadband access; while almost half of low broadband districts (48 percent) offer fully in-person instruction, this proportion is less than 28 percent in high broadband districts. This is fairly intuitive, as schools are less likely to offer online instruction when students are not able to log on to the virtual classroom.
Politics continues to be one of the most divisive factors when it comes to differences in instructional offerings. Just 4 percent of districts in counties that voted for Donald Trump offer fully remote instruction. Four times as many districts that voted for Joe Biden remain remote, at 17 percent. Decisions to teach in person or online look to be based on factors outside of limited infrastructure and public health numbers.
One year ago, every student across the nation was learning from home. Today, remote instruction is the exception rather than the norm, as more and more districts open their classroom doors once again. The Return to Learn Tracker will continue to monitor school districts’ changes over the course of the 2020-21 school year. Follow along here for weekly updates on the state of the nation’s schools.