WASHINGTON — The share of school districts continuing to offer virtual-only instruction to students fell below 10 percent for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, according to statistics on pandemic schooling compiled weekly by the data firm Burbio. That signals a tenuous return to normal for all but a few regions on the West Coast and in the Northeast.
“That virtual ring is narrowing,” said Burbio co-founder Dennis Roche. “That is a big deal.”
Those holdouts, however, are among the most densely populated regions of the country, while many districts have returned only haltingly, with only a few hours of in-person instruction per week. And some parents who have been given the option to have their children back in the classroom have kept them at home for now.
In sum, these developments mean that Zoom school — a derisive term for learning on a computer — remains the norm for millions of children.
Still, the drop below 10 percent is remarkable because in September of last year, 60 percent of students across the country, from kindergarten to 12th grade, were attending classes remotely. Though there was already sufficient evidence then that returning to school was safe, teachers’ unions fought reopening plans and successfully delayed them in many parts of the country.
Mounting frustration and rising vaccination rates have both had their effect, leading proponents of reopening to declare victory. “The Battle to Reopen Schools Is Largely Won,” a headline in the conservative National Review read last week. Conservatives have generally pushed schools to reopen, criticizing Democrats as being overly deferential to unions and not following the science, which says unambiguously that schools are, in fact, not sites of coronavirus transmission.
President Biden has said he wants schools to reopen by his 100th day in office, and while it appears he will meet that goal, that may have to do, in part, with the fact that the goal has been stated vaguely enough to avoid some of the complexity of the issue.
Despite gains made in recent months, questions remain about whether the reopening momentum can be sustained into the fall and whether it will result in schools that resemble schools pre-2020, face masks notwithstanding. “For parents, teachers and students, the goal is to have a normal school experience, which means the overwhelming majority of students in school every day, five days a week,” Roche told Yahoo News.
According to Burbio’s statistics, 28.2 percent of students in elementary or secondary school are in “hybrid” arrangements, meaning they attend in-person instruction only two or three days a week and learn from home the rest of the time. The hybrid arrangement has been widely derided. The question for many is whether hybrid learning is a bridge back to normal or a new normal of its own.
The states with the highest share of students back in the classroom are Wyoming and Arkansas. The states that have brought the fewest students back are Maryland and Oregon.
California’s struggles have been especially intense; it is the state with the third-lowest share of students back, presenting a challenging reality for political leaders in this state of 6.1 million children attending 10,588 public schools. But there too, children are slowly returning to the classroom for the first time in more than a year.
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