Students are most likely to be attending school fully in-person in school districts where the coronavirus is spreading most rapidly, according to a nationally representative survey of American parents released this week by Education Next.
More than half of U.S. students were receiving instruction entirely remotely in November of this school year, while 28 percent of students receive in-person instruction. Of the 19 percent of students in hybrid models, in-person instruction varies from one to five days a week. District-school students are far more likely than private-school students to be taught through remote instruction.
“Our data indicate that the decentralized process of school and family decision-making our nation has relied on amid the pandemic has produced a perverse result: in-person instruction is both least common where it is most likely to be safe, and vice versa,” stated authors Michael B. Henderson of Louisiana State University and Martin R. West and Paul E. Peterson of Harvard University.
Among the key findings:
• Modes of instruction. According to parents, 53 percent of students are receiving instruction entirely remotely. Only 28 percent of students receive all their instruction in person. Parents of 19 percent of students say their children are learning via a hybrid model. The younger the child, the more likely the instruction is to be delivered in person: 37 percent of children in grades K–2 attend school in person, 34 percent for grades 3–5, 26 percent for grades 6–8, and 18 percent for those in high school.
• COVID incidence. Availability and usage of in-person instruction as of November is unrelated to COVID incidence at the start of 2020–2021 school year, when most districts and schools made their reopening plans. By November, students were more likely to be attending school fully in person in counties where the virus was spreading most rapidly.
• Instruction by sector. Well over half—57 percent—of students enrolled in district schools receive all their instruction fully remotely, while only 24 percent receive all of their instruction in person. The percentages are nearly reversed for children attending private schools: 60 percent receive instruction in person and just 18 percent receive their instruction remotely. Students enrolled in charter schools are even less likely to attend in person.
• Declining district enrollment. Parent reports on the school their child attended indicate a drop of nine percentage points in district school enrollments since last spring (as reported in the Education Next survey administered in May 2020). They also indicate an increase in private and charter school enrollments of three percentage points, and an increase in homeschooling of two percentage points. Although these estimates are subject to survey measurement error, they, if accurate, imply that the district sector lost over five million students between the spring and fall of 2020. Over the same period, the survey data suggest that private-sector enrollments and charter enrollments each increased by nearly 1.7 million students, and the share of students whose parents say they are being homeschooled increased by 1.1 million.
• Instruction by income and ethnic background. Parents of students in the top quartile of household income as well as the parents of white students report greater availability and use of both fully in-person and hybrid instruction than do parents of students in the bottom income quartile and the parents of Black and Hispanic students. Meanwhile, parents of low-income students and parents of Black and Hispanic students are far more likely to report that their child is fully remote.
• Pandemic pods. Parent reports suggest that roughly six percent of American students—or roughly three million students—are participating in a pandemic pod, defined as receiving instruction in a group setting from someone other than the child’s school or a household member. Participation in such pods is higher among students from the bottom quartile of household income than among students in the top quartile.
• Teachers unions. Thirty percent of parents say that unions have a negative effect on schools, essentially the same as the 29 percent and 32 percent who reported a negative effect in May of 2019 and 2020, respectively. If anything, parents’ views of union influence have grown more favorable since May 2020, with the share saying unions have a positive effect on schools climbing from 40 percent at that time to 46 percent in November.
The survey of more than 2,100 respondents is representative of U.S. parents or caretakers of children with at least one child in kindergarten through twelfth grade. The survey includes oversamples of those with students enrolled in a charter school and those enrolled in a private school as well as Black and Hispanic parents. The survey was conducted in November and December 2020.
Michael B. Henderson is assistant professor at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication and director of its Public Policy Research Lab. Paul E. Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard University, Director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG), and Senior Editor of Education Next. Martin R. West is the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of Education at Harvard University, Deputy Director of PEPG, and Editor-in-chief of Education Next.
Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, visit educationnext.org.