Nearly half of the nation’s elementary schools were open for full-time classroom learning as of last month, but the share of students learning in-person has varied greatly by region and by race, with most nonwhite students learning entirely online, according to results from a national survey conducted by the Biden administration.
For the White House, the survey results, released Wednesday, mark the starting line for President Joe Biden’s pledge to have most K-8 schools open full-time in his first 100 days in office. But they also show that he never had far to go to meet that goal.
Among schools that enroll fourth graders, 47% offered full-time classroom learning in February, while for schools that teach eighth-graders, the figure was 46%. The data suggested that at least some students weren’t opting in.
“The data collected by the survey are essential for beginning to measure and understand the pandemic’s impact on American students,” said Mark Schneider, director of the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Education Department.
The administration plans to update the initial data set each month to show how many U.S. schools are teaching in-person, online or through a combination. The federal government did not previously collect information on the topic, making it difficult to track progress on reopening schools.
The new findings are based on a survey of 3,500 public schools whose student bodies include fourth graders, along with 3,500 schools that serve eighth graders. A total of 44 states agreed to participate, while six states declined to take part. The survey asked schools about their teaching methods as of February but gathered other data as of January.
The survey casts new light on a period of particularly bitter debate in the school reopening process. In January, officials in California, Chicago and other locales were still locked in stalemate with teachers over reopening plans, with vaccines often arising as a sticking point.
Since January, however, the push to reopen has gained steam in many areas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a roadmap to reopening in February, and this month the agency relaxed guidelines around social distancing in schools. Amid pressure from Biden, dozens of states are now focusing on giving COVID-19 vaccines to teachers and other school staff.
As more schools invite students back to the classroom, many parents are conflicted, according to a separate poll from The University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. It found that a majority of parents are at least somewhat concerned that in-person instruction will lead to more people being infected, but a slightly larger share are at least somewhat concerned that their children will face setbacks in school because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to tracking school teaching methods, the new federal survey also tracks how many students have enrolled in each type of learning.
In January, the survey found, 38% of fourth graders enrolled in full-time, in-person learning, compared to 28% of eighth graders. Larger shares of students were entirely remote, with 43% of fourth graders and 48% of eighth graders learning away from school. It was not clear what share of students were learning online by choice and how many were in schools without in-person options.
The survey does not include high schools, which weren’t included in Biden’s reopening promise and pose additional challenges as they work to reopen. Younger children are less likely to get seriously ill from the coronavirus, and education experts say they have the greatest need for in-person learning.
The Education Department said it will issue updated data from the survey each month through July. The information is published on a dashboard on the agency’s website.