The U.S. Education Department has released the first in a series of school surveys intended to provide a national view of learning during the pandemic. It reveals that the percentage of students who are still attending school virtually may be higher than previously understood.
As of January and early February of this year, 43% of elementary students and 48% of middle school students in the survey remained fully remote. And the survey found large differences by race: 68% of Asian, 58% of Black and 56% of Hispanic fourth graders were learning entirely remotely, while just 27% of White students were.
Conversely, nearly half of white fourth-graders were learning full-time in person, compared with just 15% of Asian, 28% of Black and 33% of Hispanic fourth-graders. The remainder had hybrid schedules.
This disparity may be partly driven by where students live. City schools, the survey found, are less likely than rural schools to offer full-time, in-person classes. Full-time, in-person schooling dominated in the South and the Midwest, and was much less common in the West and Northeast.
The racial and ethnic gaps may also be driven in part by which families are choosing to stay remote, even where some in-person learning is offered. Three out of 4 districts around the country were offering some in-person learning as of January, the report says, with full-time, in person learning more common than hybrid schedules.
The Education Department created the survey in response to an executive action signed by President Biden on his first full day in office. To obtain results quickly, researchers used the existing infrastructure of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the testing program also known as "The Nation's Report Card."
More than a year after schools around the country first switched to virtual learning, this is the first attempt at federal data collection on the progress of school reopening. Although the Trump administration pushed for school reopening, it made no such efforts. "I'm not sure there's a role at the department to collect and compile that research," former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said last October.
This survey covers a nationally representative sample of around 7,000 schools, half of which were educating fourth-graders and the other half educating eighth-graders (those being grades included in The Nation's Report Card testing).
New results will be reported monthly through at least July. The results are intended to provide context for The Nation's Report Card in 2022, and state tests, which the Biden administration is requiring this year.
The survey is also intended to pinpoint inequities. For example, among the other key findings: More than 4 in 10 districts said they were giving priority to students with disabilities for in-person instruction. Yet in practice, 38% of elementary students with disabilities remained remote, compared with 43% overall. Many families of students with disabilities have said that their children receive limited benefit from virtual learning.
Finally, this pilot survey asked how many hours of live video instruction students were receiving when learning remotely. The majority of schools said they are offering more than three hours per day. But 10% of eighth-graders, and 5% of fourth-graders, are getting no live instruction at all when learning remotely. They may be working on other activities such as homework packets, or software, or watching pre-recorded lessons.
The response rate to this nationally representative survey varied around the country and was lowest in the Northeast. Notably, out of 27 large urban districts targeted in the survey, 16 declined to participate.
Previously, NPR has been citing school reopening data provided by an organization called Burbio. Burbio scrapes school district websites to find out whether school is being offered hybrid, full-time or all-virtual. Their data set — 1,200 school districts representing 35,000 schools and nearly half of the U.S. school population, is larger than that covered in this federal survey.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
OK, parents - more than a year into the pandemic, are your kids back to in-person classes, or are they still at a computer at your kitchen table? We haven't had a clear national picture of how the pandemic has disrupted students and their learning until now. This morning, the federal Department of Education released the first in a series of nationally representative school surveys, which are intended to fill in the blanks.
Anya Kamenetz from NPR's education team has been going through the data and joins us now. Hi, Anya.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: What struck you from this survey?
KAMENETZ: So as of January and early February of this year, we saw 3 out of 4 schools are offering some in-person learning with full time being more common than the hybrid or part-time schedules. However, what I noticed is that just under half of all students in the survey were still fully remote. And there are some really large differences by race and ethnicity here. So 7 out of 10 Asian fourth-graders are at home learning remotely full time, so were 58% of Black and 57% of Hispanic fourth-graders. But just 27% of all white students are at home full time, where almost half of all white students are full-time in person.
MARTIN: So the majority of elementary students of color are remote. Why? Why is that the case?
KAMENETZ: Well, some part of that may be family preference because some students choose to stay remote even when their school is offering in-person learning. It also may be partly driven by where students live. City schools in this survey, as well as schools in the West and Northeast, were less likely to offer full-time in-person classes versus rural schools and schools in the South and Midwest. I should add that there were several large city districts that declined to participate in this survey, although these are still nationally representative numbers. In any case, this remote learning gap is something to watch, Rachel, because there are lots of ongoing concerns about, you know, are students really doing the work? Are they really signing on? Do they even have computers and Wi-Fi?
MARTIN: And what is that curriculum, right? I mean, what did the data show about the quality of remote learning that schools are offering right now?
KAMENETZ: So it's very complicated. But as a way of getting at that, this pilot survey asked, about how many live hours of video instruction remote students are getting? And the majority of schools said they are offering more than three hours of live, real-time video teaching per day. On the other hand, 10% of eighth-graders and 5% of fourth-graders were getting no live instruction at all when learning remotely. So they might be working on paper packets or on software programs or even watching prerecorded videos, but no live contact on those days.
MARTIN: I know, Anya, you have been paying particular attention to how the pandemic and virtual learning has affected kids with disabilities. What did the survey say about that group?
KAMENETZ: Right. So we hear from many families of students with disabilities that their children have a hard time benefiting from virtual learning. They're not getting the services that they're supposed to get by law. More than 4 in 10 districts told the Department of Ed that they are giving students with disabilities priority for in-person instruction. Yet when you look at the numbers, they found about 4 in 10 of these students remain remote - so not a lot of evidence that they are being prioritized.
MARTIN: Just quickly, President Biden ordered this study be done right after he was sworn into office. Does that mean the Trump administration wasn't tracking the effects of the pandemic on learning?
KAMENETZ: Yeah, we actually have a - you know, we heard Betsy DeVos, the former education secretary, say she didn't think it was really their job to do so despite the push for school reopening in the last administration. With this data is going to come a potential attempt at accountability and trying to measure the student learning that may or may not have been done, as well as redress those gaps going forward.
MARTIN: NPR's education correspondent Anya Kamenetz, thanks.
KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.