U-Turn: Surge of COVID Cases Reverses Reopening Progress in America’s School Districts

Research Rundown Issue: January '21
Publisher: Center on Reinventing Public Education
Date Published: January '21


Over the course of the school year, CRPE has been tracking which learning models—in-person, hybrid, or remote—477 districts have been using across the country. Their most recent analysis found that many districts have been reversing their reopening decisions, after attempting to move to more in-person learning earlier in the fall. Between November and December of 2020, distance learning increased by 7 percentage points for suburban districts, 10 percentage points for rural districts, and by over 20 percentage points for urban districts. While 44% of districts were still offering in-person instruction, urban districts were much more likely to be remote only.

Given the changing nature of schooling models, the researchers note that it is critical for school systems to assess student progress and provide meaningful support. However, their analysis found that only 37% of districts overall and 43% of fully remote districts mentioned using assessments to help inform instruction and identify support for students. When broken down by geography, this equated to 55% of urban districts, 53% of suburban districts, and 29% of rural districts.

Why This Matters in Minnesota

Deciding when and how to reopen has been a topic that the state, policymakers, parents, and school districts have been grappling with since schools closed in March. These studies— just a few from a growing body of work on children, schools, and COVID-19—indicate that an important strategy for enabling in-person learning is controlling community spread. While the number is changing every day as schools begin welcoming students back, about 13% of Minnesota’s districts are doing solely in-person learning, with 40% doing distance learning, and another 35% using a combination of hybrid, distance, or in-person. As this continues to shift, it is important that districts, educators, policymakers, and families have the best, most up-to-date research to make informed, collaborative decisions on school reopening.

Moreover, as we move into COVID recovery mode, gradually bringing more students back into buildings and addressing exacerbated needs, it’s important for schools to begin assessing student achievement. We will need good data to help inform which research-backed strategies to use to accelerate learning, how to equitably allocate resources, and communicate to families about how their student is doing. Initial findings indicate students—particularly students of color and low-income students—will have experienced some learning loss related to COVID-19 school closures.

In Minnesota, our fall learning plan analysis found that this was an area for improvement, with only two districts mentioning using local diagnostic assessment to measure where students are and what their greatest learning needs will be. And only four mentioned addressing learning loss, with only general outlines for action.

As the state legislative session begins, some policymakers must make addressing learning loss one a top 2021 priority. House Democrats introduced legislation that includes investments in programs to address learning and opportunities gaps—the math and reading corps, after-school community learning programs, summer programs grants, and more. We commend these investments and encourage Minnesota policymakers to also commit to gathering actionable data on student achievement that can better inform the equitable allocation of these resources.

Read the full report