March 2021 opens with school districts steadily shifting to more in-person instruction

Since March 12, 2020, when the
first statewide coronavirus school closures were announced by Ohio Governor
Mike Dewine, we have become accustomed to the familiar story: the struggles of
remote learning and conflict over decisions to reopen schools. That story,
however, is shifting, and March 2021 looks like it will be the third month in a
row that the percentage of fully remote school districts will decline.

Recent data from the Return to Learn Tracker (R2L) show continuous movement towards in-person instruction in school districts. The R2L tracker provides weekly snapshots of how districts are continuing to adapt to the ongoing pandemic by monitoring over 8,500 public school districts, categorizing them as fully remote, fully in-person, or in a hybrid format. Throughout January and February, many districts shifted to offer more in-person instruction. At the beginning of January, 27 percent of districts were fully remote. By March 1, that number was down to 14 percent.

Since R2L data reflect percentages
of districts and not schools, it’s important to look at differences by district
size. It matters whether larger districts’ instructional models differ from those
of smaller districts, because more schools are affected by the decisions of
larger districts. And R2L data reveal large differences by district size.

As of March 1, small districts
are much more likely to be in person than are large districts. Forty-four
percent of small districts (those with three to five schools) offer fully
in-person instruction — nearly twice the percentage of large districts (23
percent for districts with 12 or more schools). By contrast, less than one in 10
small districts are fully remote, compared to 19 percent and 24 percent of
medium and large districts, respectively.

Differences across district
demographics are not limited to district size. In fact, the political divide on
school reopenings is glaring; districts in counties that voted for Joe Biden
have three times the percentage of fully remote districts compared to counties
that voted for Donald Trump. There is also wide variation across states. Six
states now have no fully remote districts: Connecticut, Florida, Nebraska,
Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. While some states are steadily opening up, others
are still lagging behind.

California has the highest proportion of school districts where students have no chance of entering a school building. With 59 percent of districts offering no options for in-person or hybrid instruction, California leads the nation for the percentage of the state’s districts with students learning fully remotely. California has plans to shift to more in-person instruction in mid-April. This comes after nearly three weeks of “intensive bargaining” with teachers unions, but California looks like it will continue to be an outlier for at least the next five weeks.

The contrast between March 2020 and March 2021 is stark. Last year brought the most turbulent changes to public schools in recent history. Twelve months out, more and more districts are reopening their doors to students. With about one in three districts offering fully in-person instruction, there is still clearly much to be done. As such, the Return to Learn Tracker will continue to monitor school districts’ changes through the remainder of the school year. Follow along here for weekly updates on the state of the nations’ schools.