The shift was driven primarily by K-8 students, who experienced larger decreases than the K-12 student population in virtual and hybrid learning and larger increases in in-person learning.
ONE OF THE COUNTRY'S largest school reopening trackers showed for the first time a drop in both the percentage of students attending virtual schools and the percentage attending hybrid schools – a subtle but significant shift indicating the continued slow and steady return to traditional, in-person school for more than 50 million children whose classrooms shuttered at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago.
[ READ: Data Reveals Significant Racial Disparities in School Reopening ]
Last week, 16.3% of K-12 students attended schools that offered only virtual learning, down from 18.1% the week prior, while 30.6% of K-12 students attended hybrid schools, down from 30.7% the week prior, according to Burbio, an organization that monitors 1,200 school districts, including the 200 largest districts in the country. Students attending traditional, in-person school five days a week increased to 53.1% last week, up from 51.2% the week prior.
Photos: America's Pandemic Toll
Registered traveling nurse Patricia Carrete, of El Paso, Texas, walks down the hallways during a night shift at a field hospital set up to handle a surge of COVID-19 patients, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Cranston, R.I. Rhode Island's infection rate has come down since it was the highest in the world two months ago, and many of the field hospital's 335 beds are now empty. On quiet days, the medical staff wishes they could do more. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
The shift was driven primarily by K-8 students, who experienced larger decreases than the K-12 student population in both virtual and hybrid learning and larger increases in in-person learning, according to Burbio's figures, and follows closely behind the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's revision of social distancing guidance in schools from 6 feet to 3 feet.
With President Joe Biden telling state officials, school leaders and educators last week that they must find a way to reopen for in-person learning and schools now able to tap into the tens of billions of dollars in federal relief to help pay for reopening costs, Burbio is forecasting a continued decrease among students learning virtually of through a hybrid model – perhaps with even sharper declines.
"They need the opportunity, they need the eye-to-eye contact, they need to be with you in classrooms," Biden told educators and school leaders last week about children returning to in-person school during the National Safe School Reopening Summit. "It's critically important. I think we can do this. We have to. We have no choice."
There's already some marked movement in states: Massachusetts, for example, is projecting that 90% of students in kindergarten through fifth grade will be offered traditional in-person instruction by April 5 – a shift that Burbio's tracker is already recording. Similar shifts are also anticipated in places like New Mexico and Oregon, where governors and state education officials have announced plans to prioritize returning their elementary and middle school children to in-person learning.
Burbio's latest figures mirror those included in the first batch of federal data examining how students are receiving education – a data dump the Education Department reported last week, which also revealed deep racial disparities that were even more pronounced than some initially believed.
As of January, more than half of all Black, Hispanic and Asian fourth graders were learning in a fully remote environment, the federal data shows. By comparison, a quarter of white students were learning fully remotely, and instead nearly half of white students were learning in person, full time. And for those learning remotely – the majority of whom were students of color – many were receiving two hours or less of live instruction. In fact, 5% of fourth graders and 10% of eighth graders were receiving no live instruction whatsoever in their remote learning.
Much of the lack of in-person instruction among students of color can be traced to the difficulties urban school districts have had reopening, including the high rates of COVID-19 transmission in their communities, dated school facilities with poor ventilation, lack of indoor and outdoor space to facilitate social distancing and the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on the families of the children they serve.
Even still, signs abound of the gears beginning to turn thanks to federal assistance, the revised CDC guidance and state prioritizing educators and school staff for vaccines. Philadelphia schools began reopening for in-person learning earlier this month for students in pre-kindergarten through second grade. Schools in Los Angeles begin returning their youngest students to classrooms in mid-April. High school students in New York City returned last week, and high schoolers in Chicago could return as early as April 19.
Yet as the number of children who return to school buildings for in-person learning this spring rises, so too does the number of children being infected with a new variant of the coronavirus – a variant that has already re-shuttered schools across Europe, including in parts of France, Italy, Poland and Germany.
The variant, which was first detected in the U.K. and now is estimated to account for a growing number of infections in children in Florida, Michigan, Minnesota and Texas, could threaten to reverse some of the significant school reopening progress that's occurred in recent months.
[ READ: Teachers Union Pushes Back on CDC Distancing Guidance for Schools ]
The government's top infectious disease and public health experts appear unshaken by the uptick in children testing positive for the new variant – at least so far.
"There is an increase in severity, but also it appears that the likelihood of a child getting infected is greater with this variant," Fauci said during a daily COVID-19 White House briefing last week. "That might not relate anything specific to children, but that it is just in general more easily transmitted. So that would explain that."
"What we can say," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walenksy added during the same briefing, "is that while these variants are concerning, it is the fact that the same disease and the same mitigation strategies – the masking, the social distancing – work just the same with the variants."
Notably, the vaccines appear to be working against the variant found in the U.K. and other new strains. And public health officials say that because the U.S. is getting so many shots into people's arms so quickly – 143 million doses administered and counting – it's less likely that the new variants will incur the same types of at-home quarantine proliferated by the original onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Last month, Biden urged states to prioritize teachers for the vaccination, resulting in nearly every state pushing educators and school staff to the front of the line. Last week alone, roughly 500,000 doses were made available for them.
Lauren Camera, Senior Education Writer
Lauren Camera is a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report. She joined the News team as an ... READ MORE
Tags: coronavirus, public schools, students, K-12 education
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