K-12 School Reopening Trends

November 30, 2020

Dennis Roche

Where We Are Now

Burbio School Opening Tracker- Map

  • % US K-12 students attending 'virtual only" schools = 49.0% (up from 43.5% last week, and 36.9% two weeks ago)
  • % US K-12 students attending 'traditional In-person/every day" schools = 33.5%
  • % US K-12 students attending "hybrid" schools = 17.5%

The above percentages are set to Monday, November 30th. We set our numbers to the day of our reports due to changes that occur the day before announced plans. 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, 49% of US K-12 students are currently attending schools that offer virtual-only plans, 33.5% offering traditional, etc.

Trends and Observations

  • To review, Burbio launched the audit on August 11th showing 52% "virtual only" and it shifted dramatically as the month went on and increased to 62% by Labor Day as large districts such as Hawaii, Dallas, small cities in the Northeast, Boston and parts of the Midwest and Sun Belt reversed previously announced in-person plans. Post-Labor Day, large Sun Belt cities such as Houston, Dallas and Miami returned in person, plus communities across the Northeast and the Midwest, and by early November less than 40% of US K-12 students were attending virtual-only schools. In the last three weeks, Covid-19 related closures of mid-size city districts such as Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Oklahoma City, widespread closures across states such as Colorado, Kentucky, Michigan and Minnesota, and the closure of the NYC schools to in person drove the the virtual-only figure back up to 49%.
  • In an abrupt adjustment after recently closing schools to in-person learning, on Sunday November 29th New York City announced students in K-5 would return to classrooms beginning December 7th and attend every day in a "traditional" format subject to capacity issues in certain schools. High school and middle school students will remain virtual for now. This is a shift from the system-wide hybrid plan that was previously in effect.
    This plan has potential implications beyond NYC. K-5 students are less susceptible to Covid-19 than adolescents and can be more easily organized into "cohorts" than older students. In addition, younger students struggle with virtual learning and by dispensing with the hybrid option, which creates logistical challenges in districts of all sizes, NYC is streamlining the in person experience, offering a roadmap for other large urban districts. This could also could preview how suburban and smaller city districts currently offering system-wide hybrid schooling might prioritize adding traditional learning at the K-5 level in 2021. It is worth noting, however, that the NYC Covid rate of around 3% remains below many other cities, with LA County reporting 
    a recent 6.9% 7 day average and Chicago and Philadelphia both reporting low double digit testing averages, making the current health discussion around returning to in person unique in NYC versus other large urban districts.
  • The increase in virtual was driven by post-Thanksgiving closures across the Midwest and Northeast, some until January and many for shorter periods. There is considerable volatility in the districts that are closing for only a short period as the duration of virtual learning may be extended. Topeka Public Schools extended remote learning on short notice; as did Davenport, IA, and Iowa City, IA. and many individual schools within districts did as well.
  • For districts in many parts of the country the next few months will be a stressful balance of health regulations and instructional logistics. In Pennsylvania the state departments of health and education issued a joint letter outlining certification criteria for districts where there is "Substantial" spread - currently making up 59 of the 67 counties in the state. In Louisiana the AP reports school administrators appealed to state health officials to loosen quarantine rules. In Colorado Chalkbeat reports a letter from the Colorado Association of School Executives asking the governor to either support their closure decisions or loosen quarantine rules to allow them more flexibility. In Nashville a local Fox affiliate covered local frustration with local health decision-making regarding in-person learning. In NY, Governor Andrew Cuomo, realizing that many districts don't possess the testing resources to stay open, announced plans to reallocate testing resources to schools to keep them open at least in K-8. through the winter months.
  •  With the announced return of a portion to NYC students, and some districts in the Northeast and Midwest planning to return to in-person as soon as this month, the "virtual-only" figure may have just peaked. That said, an increase in closures in the Sun Belt, which have generally stayed open during the most recent increase in cases, would change that. Further, it is worth noting that almost half of US K-12 students are back to learning at virtual-only schools, and to date over 30% of US K-12 students have never had the opportunity for in-person learning this academic year, indicating considerable challenges and volatility in the coming months.

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