The steady march to in-person learning is happening more quickly for white students

Nat Malkus April 1, 2021

Originally published at

Spring 2021 continues to reveal glimpses of the return to normalcy. With almost 30 percent of Americans having received at least one dose of the vaccine, schools and cities at large are beginning to reopen their doors. In fact, according to AEI’s Return to Learn Tracker, about 93 percent of districts across the country offer at least some in-person learning. Some students are logging off online class to step back into the classrooms again for the first time in over one year. The steady march back to in-person learning, however, is happening more quickly for some students than others.

Disparities in who has options for in-person learning fall along numerous lines, including race. Data from the Return to Learn Tracker reveal that the nationwide shift to getting students back in the classroom is happening at a slower rate for black and Hispanic students compared to white students. R2L data examine this disparity from multiple angles.

First, R2L data examine differences in instructional offerings by percentages of students. These data reveal that as of March 22, the proportion of black students attending districts with no option for in-person instruction was twice that of white students, at 10 percent and 5 percent, respectively. This difference is even starker for Hispanic students — 20 percent attend fully remote districts. You can view differences by race in the chart below by selecting ‘Black,’ ‘Hispanic,’ and ‘White.’ These percentages indicate the proportion of students of a given race in districts with a given instructional offering.

This pattern has held for several months. A larger share of white students had access to in-person instruction in the late fall of 2020, and the return to in-person instruction since January happened more quickly for white students compared to black and Hispanic students. At the beginning of January, one third of white students were in fully remote districts, compared to about half of black and Hispanic students. By March 22, that proportion decreased by 85 percent for white students, by 80 percent for black students, and by just 59 percent for Hispanic students. In other words, since January there has been a lower baseline proportion of black and Hispanic students with the option for in-person learning, and their schools have been slower to open their doors.

A second look at this comes from the district level. R2L data reveal differences across districts that are majority-black, majority-Hispanic, and majority white. Specifically, just 3 percent of districts that have a majority of white students have no option for in-person instruction. This rate is six times higher in majority-black districts and eight times higher in majority-Hispanic districts — at 18 percent and 24 percent, respectively. That certainly contributes to the differences seen above in the percentages of students, but it is just one factor to consider, as majority-black and majority-Hispanic districts are relatively rare.

About one in 20 of all R2L districts are majority black — where over one half of the student population is comprised of black students — and those districts include just 26 percent of all black students in the R2L data. Hispanic majority districts constitute a larger proportion of R2L data, constituting about one in 10 R2L districts and including almost half (47 percent) of all Hispanic students in the R2L data. So while the decisions made by these majority race districts play into the differences in what percentages of students are offering, they are only part of the story.

Another part of the story — one the R2L data do not shed light on — is students’ varied participation rates for in-person learning. Many students with the option to return in-person chose to continue in remote instruction and, according to the CDC, that tendency is higher in non-white families. Black and Hispanic parents expressed multiple concerns, including schools’ ability to reopen safely, adherence to migration strategies, and risks of the child being exposed to COVID-19 and bringing it home.

Closing racial gaps for in-person learning is a battle on two fronts: The first is to offer in-person instruction to all students in a safe and sustainable fashion, and to do it now. The second, which may be even harder, is to build trust with parents who need to be convinced that schools can do that safely. As the semester unfolds, the Return to Learn Tracker will continue to monitor how districts respond to the ongoing pandemic.