National parent survey: Students more likely to be attending school in person in districts where the virus is spreading more rapidly

Private schools are more likely to be fully in-person, district and charter schools are more likely to be fully remote

Cambridge, Massachusetts, Jan. 19, 2021 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Students are most likely to be attending school fully in-person in school districts where the coronavirus is spreading most rapidly, according to a nationally representative survey of American parents released today by Education Next.

More than half of U.S. students are receiving instruction entirely remotely in November of this school year, while 28% of students receive in-person instruction. Of the 19% of students in hybrid models, in-person instruction varies from one to five days a week. District-school students are far more likely than private-school students to be taught through remote instruction.

As President-elect Joe Biden endeavors to reopen the majority of U.S. K–8 schools by the end of his first 100 days, these findings provide a previously unavailable snapshot of nationwide education delivery across district, private, and charter sectors amid the pandemic.

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“Our data indicate that the decentralized process of school and family decision-making our nation has relied on amid the pandemic has produced a perverse result: in-person instruction is both least common where it is most likely to be safe, and vice versa,” state authors Michael B. Henderson of Louisiana State University and Martin R. West and Paul E. Peterson of Harvard University.

Among the key findings:

  • Modes of instruction. According to parents, 53% of students are receiving instruction entirely remotely. Only 28% of students receive all their instruction in person. Parents of 19% of students say their children are learning via a hybrid model. The younger the child, the more likely the instruction is to be delivered in person: 37% of children in grades K–2 attend school in person, 34% for grades 3–5, 26% for grades 6–8, and 18% for those in high school.
  • Covid incidence. Availability and usage of in-person instruction as of November is unrelated to Covid incidence at the start of 2020–2021 school year, when most districts and schools made their reopening plans. By November, students were more likely to be attending school fully in person in counties where the virus was spreading most rapidly.
  • Instruction by sector. Well over half—57%—of students enrolled in district schools receive all their instruction fully remotely, while only 24% receive all of their instruction in person. The percentages are nearly reversed for children attending private schools: 60% receive instruction in person and just 18% receive their instruction remotely. Students enrolled in charter schools are even less likely to attend in person.
  • Declining district enrollment. Parent reports on the school their child attended indicate a drop of 9 percentage points in district school enrollments since last spring (as reported in the Education Next survey administered in May 2020). They also indicate an increase in private and charter school enrollments of 3 percentage points, and an increase in homeschooling of 2 percentage points. Although these estimates are subject to survey measurement error, they, if accurate, imply that the district sector lost over 5 million students between the spring and fall of 2020. Over the same period, the survey data suggest that private-sector enrollments and charter enrollments each increased by nearly 1.7 million students, and the share of students whose parents say they are being homeschooled increased by 1.1 million.
  • Instruction by income and ethnic background. Parents of students in the top quartile of household income as well as the parents of white students report greater availability and use of both fully in-person and hybrid instruction than do parents of students in the bottom income quartile and the parents of Black and Hispanic students. Meanwhile, parents of low-income students and parents of Black and Hispanic students are far more likely to report that their child is fully remote.
  • Partisan affiliation. The children of Republican parents are more likely to have access to and be participating in fully in-person instruction than are the children of Democrats.
  • Pandemic pods. Parent reports suggest that roughly 6 percent of American students—or roughly 3 million students—are participating in a pandemic pod, defined as receiving instruction in a group setting from someone other than the child’s school or a household member. Participation in such pods is higher among students from the bottom quartile of household income than among students in the top quartile.
  • Teachers unions. Thirty percent of parents say that unions have a negative effect on schools, essentially the same as the 29% and 32% who reported a negative effect in May of 2019 and 2020, respectively. If anything, parents’ views of union influence have grown more favorable since May 2020, with the share saying unions have a positive effect on schools climbing from 40% at that time to 46% in November.

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Methodology. The survey of more than 2,100 respondents is representative of U. S. parents or caretakers of children with at least one child in kindergarten through twelfth grade. The survey includes oversamples of those with students enrolled in a charter school and those enrolled in a private school as well as Black and Hispanic parents. The survey was conducted in November and December 2020.

About the Authors: Michael B. Henderson is assistant professor at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication and director of its Public Policy Research Lab. Paul E. Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard University, Director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG), and Senior Editor of Education Next. Martin R. West is the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of Education at Harvard University, Deputy Director of PEPG, and Editor-in-chief of Education Next.

About Education NextEducation Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit



Students Are More Likely to Attend School in Person Where Covid Is Spreading Most Rapidly

Both the availability of and actual in-person school attendance is greater in counties where the number of new Covid cases was highest just before our November survey.
Parents Report Covid Cases in 60 Percent of Students’ Schools

When broken out by instructional model, the percentage of students whose schools have had one or more Covid cases is similar across in-person and hybrid settings.

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