Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
In Mississippi, Children retrieve bagged lunches Aug. 25 at Columbia Elementary School, which was operating on a hybrid learning model. (Edmund D. Fountain for The Washington Post)

The first federal data on education during the pandemic finds nearly half of public schools were open for full-time, face-to-face classes, with White children far more likely than Black, Hispanic or Asian American students to be attending in person.

The data suggests the nation is both close to a goal set by President Biden for a return to school and a considerable distance to a full return to normalcy.

The survey also raised questions about the quality of education being delivered to those learning from home. About one-third of schools offer two hours or less of live instruction per day for those learning either full or part-time at home. Some offer none.

The survey results include a representative sample of schools serving fourth- and eighth-grade students, the first attempt by the federal government to assess the state of education since schools closed en masse a year ago. The report also offers the first demographic and regional breakdown of in-person learning.

Biden has made reopening schools a key goal for his early presidency and says he wants a majority of K-8 schools open for full-time, in-person classes by his 100th day in office, at the end of April. The survey, which covered January and, in some cases, February, suggests he’s likely to hit that target. It found 47 percent of schools serving fourth-graders and 46 percent serving eighth-graders were open for full in-person instruction.

But the survey also found millions of students still don’t have full-time school available while others opted for remote education.

Overall, 60 percent of fourth-graders and 68 percent of eighth-graders were at home at least part of the school week, either fully remote or in hybrid programs that combine time in the classroom — often just a day or two each week — with distance learning.

“We’re a long way from normal,” said Dennis Roche of Burbio, a data firm that has been tracking school reopenings through its own survey. “Offering in-person education is not the only step. It’s a major step, but it’s not the end. You’ve got to get students in the classroom taking advantage of it.”

Educators, parents and policymakers all fear the prolonged period of remote schooling is taking a significant toll on students’ academic and emotional well-being. Some school districts have been open since last August, but others have struggled for months to craft plans that teachers and parents will accept as safe.

Most striking is a wide racial gap. About half of all White students were attending school in person full-time in January, the survey found. But that was true for just 28 percent of Black students and 33 percent of Hispanic students.

Rates were lowest among Asian American students, at just 15 percent.

The gap reflects differences in what is offered by schools serving students of different races as well as decisions by families.

Big-city districts, which serve more students of color, have been slower to reopen and in many cases do not offer a full-time face-to-face option. Officials said they had not yet analyzed how much offerings vs. family preferences influenced the results.

Asian American families have said they worry about elderly parents in cramped, multigenerational households, distrust promises of safety measures and fear their children will face racist harassment at school. Some are pleased with the online learning. And many live on the coasts, where their districts are less likely to offer full-time options.

As schools reopen, Asian American students are missing from classrooms

Black and Hispanic families, who have seen their communities ravaged by the pandemic, also have been more likely to choose remote instruction.

“The world told Black and Brown people they were three times more likely to die from coronavirus ... (that) Black and Brown people needed to be more afraid of coronavirus than other people,” said Krystal Barnett, executive director of Bridge 2 Hope in St. Louis, a parent advocacy group. She said many parents heard these statistics and concluded: “Of course I’m not bringing my child back, because in my mind, they’re still three times more likely to die than their counterparts.”

Rates of in-person enrollment also vary dramatically by school location.

More than half of fourth-graders living in rural areas or towns were enrolled in full-time, in-person programs. In suburbs, it was 36 percent, and in cities, just 25 percent.

It also found students in the South and the Midwest were more likely to be attending full-time in-person school than those in the Northeast or the West.

About one in four districts offered no in-person classes at all. On the flip side, about 1 in 5 districts offered no remote education at all. In these districts, all students were attending in person all the time. The report did not break down where these districts were located.

The new data come as administration officials convene on Wednesday for a virtual summit promoting the reopening of schools. The summit is to include remarks from first lady Jill Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, as well as conversations intended to showcase best practices by districts that are operating in person.

Also appearing will be Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which last week cleared the way for more in-person school by saying three feet of space between students, down from six, was sufficient to prevent spread of the virus. One panel will cover technical assistance and seek to clarify federal guidance on reopening.

Biden and Vice President Harris will also deliver pretaped remarks.

The survey also offered a first national look at how much live instruction students are getting, an important metric given the large number of students still learning from home. About a third received more than five hours a day, about a third were offered three to four hours per day, and about a third got two hours or less.

Those figures surprised Peggy Carr, associate commissioner at the National Center for Education Statistics.

“I knew it was going to be low but not quite that low,” she said.

Scant live instruction was most common in the Midwest and in towns, and less common in the Northeast and in cities.

But Carr said she was encouraged by the number of schools that were open for at least some in-person learning in January. A number of districts have reopened since then, so the current total is likely to be higher. The Education Department plans to report results from the same set of schools once a month.

Throughout the pandemic, educators have talked about a need to prioritize certain students for in-person instruction. The survey found for fourth grade, 44 percent of schools prioritized students with disabilities, with about 1 in 4 prioritizing English language learners, students with lower grades, students without Internet access at home and students experiencing homelessness. Those percentages were higher across the board for eighth grade.

Nonetheless, the survey found that children with disabilities and those learning English attended in-person school at similar rates to other students.

The survey was conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the federal Institute for Education Sciences. It included 3,500 schools serving fourth-graders and 3,500 schools serving eighth-graders.