Urban and Rural Districts Showed a Strong Divide During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Research Rundown Issue: May '21
Publisher: RAND Corporation
Date Published: May '21


A survey of 434 district leaders from 48 states and DC—weighted to be nationally representative—found stark differences between the percentage of urban, rural, and suburban districts that were offering in-person learning as of February 2021. Overall, just 17% of urban districts were offering full in-person instruction, compared to 42% of rural and 27% of suburban districts. This aligns with rural district leaders’ perception that their teachers and families had greater support for in-person learning.

The survey also found that there were substantial changes to district schedules:

  • 29% shortened the school day,
  • 18% decreased the number of days in the academic year,
  • 17% decreased instructional minutes, and
  • 14% cut some non-core classes (ex. Arts and gym) to focus on core classes (math and reading).

The survey also found that districts, where a majority of students were of color, were more likely to cut instructional minutes and offer remote instruction than districts where a majority of the students were white—ultimately translating to less instructional time over the course of the academic year. With that said, the survey also found that 56% of districts added social-emotional programming and 57% offered one-on-one tutoring or small group instruction to address learning loss.

Why This Matters in Minnesota

These trends match what we have heard anecdotally about education models in Minnesota over the past year—adding a layer of insight into the impact on instructional time. For the 2021 school year, it will be important to ensure we are setting students up for success with strong learning models that build on lessons learned in the past year, while also making up for gaps that have been exacerbated. There are active debates around what this should look like, including how to spend federal American Rescue Plan dollars, and how to continue offering reasonable flexibility given the unknowns of the pandemic in the coming year.

The House and Senate education omnibus bills both contain provisions that would allow districts to continue with distance learning for at least the 2021-22 academic year, without seeking approval as an official online learning provider. The Senate provision would allow districts to continue with a distance learning option for the foreseeable future, while the House provision contains more guardrails and puts a deadline for the end of the 2022 academic year. As the House and Senate work on compromising and deciding on final language, it’s important that we raise the bar for distance learning. The makeshift models over the past 15 months have had mixed results, and it’s critical that we move forward with a more intentional, robust approach that puts student needs at the center.

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