K-12 School Reopening Trends

January 11, 2021

Dennis Roche

Where We Are Now

Burbio School Opening Tracker- Map

  • % US K-12 students attending "virtual-only" schools = 55% (from 53.4% last week)
  • % US K-12 students attending "traditional" In-person/every day" schools = 30.8%
  • % US K-12 students attending "hybrid" schools = 14.9%

The above percentages are set to Sunday, January 10th. Our data is presented as "students attending schools that offer this learning plan" - most districts also offer virtual even when providing in-person. For above, 55% of US K-12 students are currently attending schools that offer virtual-only plans, 30.8% offering traditional, etc.

Trends and Observations

  • At Labor Day, Burbio's audit showed that 62% of all US K-12 students were attending virtual-only schools as large districts across the US postponed in-person plans due to stakeholder concerns and rising Covid-19 rates. Post-Labor Day, large Sun Belt cities such as Houston, Dallas and Miami returned in-person as did communities across the Northeast and the Midwest, and by early November only 37.8% of US K-12 students were attending virtual-only schools. Beginning in early November, districts bringing students into the classroom for the first time this academic year, or "new openings," came to a halt due to rising community Covid-19 levels. All Fall Covid-19 levels had been dropping across the US and that had changed.

    In parallel in mid-October quarantining rules, which required staff and students to stay away from school for 14 days if exposed to someone who had been in school with Covid-19, had started crippling the ability of in-person districts to operate in that format. "Community spread thresholds," which called for closing schools due to Covid-19 levels in the greater community regardless of what was happening in the schools, also started triggering closures. State level policies quickly developed on how to measure and respond to what was happening in the schools -- increased testing in particular -- and not automatically "go virtual" due to community levels. As November wore on, the quarantining regulations quickly merged with and overwhelmed the community spread guidelines. If Covid-19 levels were high in an area, staff and students who had contracted Covid-19 outside the school would trigger quarantine-related closures as they tested positive after being in school buildings.

    In mid-November, in-person districts of all sizes across the Midwest and later the Northeast began closing through a combination of quarantining, community spread levels, state level directives, and precautions around holiday travel. Currently, the percentage of students attending virtual-only schools has jumped to 55%, and we are in a period where stated plans to return students to the classroom need to be verified the day they are scheduled to occur as many districts adjust their plans at the last moment.
  • The next two weeks are big for planned returns to the classroom. Delaware's governor encouraged districts to open in hybrid on January 11th after almost all schools were virtual around the holiday. Mobile, Alabama plans to return to in-person this week, as does New Hanover, NC plus many districts throughout the Midwest, among them St Louis, MO. These are areas that had in-person learning of some kind last Fall. Of note, three cities are planning in-person learning for the first time shortly: In Denver Grade 6-12 students are scheduled to return the week of 1/18 having been virtual all year while K-5 students (which were in-person at points last Fall) return this week. Anchorage, AK, virtual all year, says K-2 will return the week of the 18th. New Haven, CT is also planning "first time" in-person instruction beginning the week of 1/18. In Minnesota we see many districts beginning in-person for younger students the week of the 18th after the Governor's recently issued guidance.
  • Conversely we are seeing schools in the Sun Belt going virtual who have long been in-person. New Orleans converted to virtual this past week due to a rise in Covid 19. Richmond County, GA and Henry County, GA are going remote this coming week for the same reason. This is a new trend and if it accelerates will have a material impact on our data as school districts in the Sun Belt are on the larger side.
  • In news from "never in-person" regions and cities, Chicago is due to bring in pre-K and special needs students this week among reports of teachers not returning to work and contentious union relations. Fairfax, VA schools. pushed a planned "first time" in-person start date of late January back again as did several other VA districts.
  • At the state level, Pennsylvania Governor Wolf shifted guidance to allow for easier introduction of in-person learning for younger students as early as January 25th. In Oregon and Ohio the near term distribution of a vaccine has entered as an issue in the timing of school openings and in California leaders of many of the largest school districts criticized Governor Newsom's school opening plans over funding and equity issues. In Iowa, Des Moines became the first district to be denied a waiver request to stay virtual and has therefore resumed hybrid learning.
  • Durham, NC schools announced they will be virtual for the remainder of the year as did Richmond, VA schools. We are noticing a pattern of smaller cities pushing "virtual" dates out the furthest. We earlier reported that in November San Bernadino decided to go virtual for the whole year. Lowell, MA and Newark NJ announced they would be virtual until at least March and April respectively. In December we reported Worcester, MA being virtual until at least March. On a shorter time frame but in that same vein Birmingham, AL is staying virtual through the end of January even as we noted several other temporarily virtual districts in Alabama planning returns this week.
  • In a policy initiative to watch, Virginia Governor Northam is discussing plans for year-round schooling and extending the school year in efforts to make up for learning loss. Given the widespread reports of the challenges many students have with virtual learning, we can envision significant school calendar changes to help students recover lost education time.

    There are many cross-currents at play right now and it's very hard to predict what the next few weeks will look like. This week many "never in-person" districts such as Fairfax, VA, continued with their track record of postponing in-person instruction and it's difficult to gauge likelihood of these areas seeing through plans until they actually get very close to opening. We are in a period similar to August where districts of all sizes shifting plans on short notice.
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Burbio data was featured in this November 20th overview of school closures in USA Today plus a recent segment on CNBC. about a rise in school closures. Burbio data has been cited in CNBC stories about racial inequality in education and the impact of virtual learning on retail sales. Axios led with the data in a piece on virtual learning glitches; Bloomberg in multiple stories as well as NPR Marketplace. Burbio has also been cited by The Information in a piece about Ed Tech, as well as CNBC in a piece about working parents and virtual education plus an NBC News piece about physical stress of remote learning on children and the USC Center for Health Journalism. The Baltimore Sun featured Burbio in a data on Maryland school openings and the New York Times in an op-ed about virtual learning and engagement. NPR highlighted Burbio data in a piece summarizing Fall school openings. and Axios featured Burbio in a piece about the instability of school openings. CNBC featured Burbio data in a piece about how disruption in K-12 education is affecting women in the workforce. CBS featured Burbio data in an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci and Politico has featured Burbio data in a variety of pieces on national K-12 trends. Burbio data has been a resource for numerous government organizations, academic researchers, trade associations, think tanks and non-profits.

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