Pandemic Parent Survey Finds Perverse Pattern

President-elect Joe Biden has made reopening a majority of K–8 schools for in-person instruction a priority for his administration’s first 100 days, with the goal of getting more American students safely back into the classroom. Yet neither information gathered so far by researchers, nor data reported by the federal government and the states, can say where the nation stands with respect to that goal. While various organizations have tracked school districts’ stated policies on reopening, those policies defy easy categorization and may not capture reality on the ground. Many districts and schools offer parents some choice about how their child is educated, making it even harder to gauge who is entering schools. Nearly halfway through the 2020–21 school year, we remain in the dark about how American schools have adapted amid the pandemic—and what American families are experiencing as a result.

We set out to close this gap. In November and December 2020, we surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,155 American parents with children in kindergarten through 12th grade, including oversamples of parents who identify as Hispanic and parents who identify as Black (see sidebar on survey methodology). We also oversampled parents with children in private and charter schools, making it possible to compare their experiences with those making use of the traditional district sector. Each parent we surveyed answered questions about the schooling experiences of each of their children in kindergarten through 12th grade, including 3,762 children in total. We also asked them a set of questions about schools and school policies in the United States in order to see if those experiences have altered parents’ views (see sidebar Gauging the Pandemic’s Effects on Parental Opinion).

Our data reveal that more than half of U.S. students are receiving instruction entirely remotely this school year, while 28% of students receive instruction that is fully in person. Of the 19% of students in hybrid models, in-person instruction varies from one to five days a week.

The parents of most students remain broadly satisfied with the instruction and activities available from their children’s schools, yet the parents of 60% of students report that their child is learning less than would be the case absent the pandemic. Satisfaction levels are highest—and reports of learning loss least common—for students attending school in person. The hybrid model appears to offer no advantage over fully remote instruction.

We document large differences across sectors in the frequency of in-person instruction. Well over half of students enrolled in district and charter schools receive all their instruction fully remotely, while less than one quarter receive all of their instruction in person. The percentages are nearly reversed for children attending private schools: 60% receive instruction in person and just 18% receive their instruction remotely.

We also provide the first evidence on the relationship between in-person instruction and the incidence of Covid. The availability and usage of in-person instruction is unrelated to Covid incidence at the start of the 2020–2021 school year, when most districts made their reopening plans. By November, however, students were most likely to be attending school fully in person in counties where the virus was spreading most rapidly.

Three Modes of Instruction

Schools adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic in multiple ways, but these approaches generally fall into one of three categories: 1) fully remote instruction, which is usually provided almost entirely over the Internet; 2) fully in-person instruction, which is essentially business as usual, but in most cases with the addition of Covid safety protocols; and 3) hybrid instruction, a mix of remote and in-person learning. This last category has many permutations, but all make partial use of the schoolhouse.

Remote instruction has spread nearly as far and wide as the coronavirus itself. School officials have successfully upgraded their use of the tool since the spring of 2020, when many were forced to scramble when ordered to close their doors. According to parental reports, though, remote instruction still falls short of in-person instruction at school. At some point in the future, children may learn as much or more if they are taught online, but that day has not yet come. Nor is the hybrid solution working any better; in fact, parents’ reports suggest that it may be the worst available option.

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