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What does it mean to go to public school in the United States during the pandemic?
The answer looks so different in different parts of the country, it is hard to tell that we are one nation.
In some rural and suburban areas, especially in the South, Midwest and Great Plains, almost all students began the 2020-21 academic year attending school in person, and they have continued to do so, except for temporary closures during outbreaks.
In many cities, the bulk of students haven’t been in a classroom since March. And in some districts, like New York City, only younger students have the option of going to school in person, with many attending only part-time.
With little guidance from the federal government, the nation’s 13,000 districts have largely come up with their own standards for when it is safe to open schools and what virus mitigation measures to use. Those decisions have often been based as much on politics as on public health data.
Through all of this, there has been no official accounting of how many American students are attending school in person or virtually. We don’t know precisely how many remote students are not receiving any live instruction, or how many students have not logged into their classes all year. Nor has the federal government tracked how many coronavirus cases have been identified in schools or which mitigation methods districts are using.
While it is clear that many students learning remotely are falling behind, few districts have comprehensively assessed where their students are, and what skills they have and have not learned since schools across the country closed last March. As a result, we don’t know what approaches to remote instruction have worked or failed.
But some of the early data is deeply troubling. In Houston, the nation’s seventh-largest public school district, which began the year remotely, 42 percent of students received at least one F in the first grading period in the fall, compared with 26 percent in the fall of 2019.
In the Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota, where nearly all students have been learning remotely since the start of this school year, 32 percent of grades given in high school core courses in the first quarter were failing marks, up from 12 percent the year before.
And Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, where classes were virtual all fall, found that the percentage of middle and high school students who failed two or more classes in the first quarter increased 83 percent from the first quarter of the previous year. The increase was even greater among students with disabilities and students learning English.
The disruption of education, like so much else about the pandemic, has not affected everyone equally. Districts serving high percentages of nonwhite or poor students were significantly more likely to remain fully remote this fall than other districts.
For many of the students who have not set foot in school since March, in-person education also represents a critical safety net — a source of food and other basic necessities, a place with caring adults who will notice signs of abuse or neglect — from which they are now cut off.
And the limited data from assessments and grades this fall suggest that disadvantaged students have lost the most ground during months of remote learning.
“Lower-income kids, kids of color, kids with unique needs like those who have a disability or other challenges — the numbers look very, very bad,” said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy organization based at the University of Washington Bothell.
Students are not suffering just academically. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that the proportion of mental-health-related visits among all visits to emergency rooms by children 5 to 17 years old increased significantly from April to October, compared with those months in 2019.
To give readers a sense of the varying ways the pandemic has affected students, families, teachers and school staff, The New York Times has profiled seven districts across the country, looking at how each responded in differing ways to the challenges of educating children in the pandemic.
Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, has operated remotely all fall, citing the city’s high rate of virus transmission. With cases still very high and hospitals overwhelmed, it seems unlikely that the district, where most students are Latino, will return to in-person learning anytime soon.
Cherokee County, Ga., a mostly white suburban district, offered in-person instruction all fall, though several of its schools switched to remote learning temporarily because of outbreaks, and the entire district was closed for at least two weeks following winter break as staffing shortages mounted. Wausau, Wis., a small, majority-white district in a state that found itself one of the worst virus hot spots for a period in the fall, vacillated between in-person and remote instruction.
In the District of Columbia Public Schools, a majority Black district, we followed efforts to re-engage students during a semester of all-remote instruction. In Providence, R.I., the governor’s push for schools to open allowed its mostly Hispanic students to come back to class, unlike in other Northeastern cities, even as the state experienced a dangerous new surge.
Roosevelt Independent School District, a tiny, rural, mostly Latino district in West Texas, made the fraught decision to require all students to return to school in person to combat a wave of academic failures. Edison, N.J., a large suburban district where a majority of the students are Asian, has struggled to make hybrid education work.
Although education experts still have only a cloudy understanding of the impact of the coronavirus on learning, they have gained some clarity about the conditions under which schools can open safely.
Evidence has increased that schools, particularly elementary schools, are unlikely to seed transmission when community spread is at moderate or low levels — provided they use mitigation strategies, including mask requirements, social distancing and good ventilation.
But in places where the virus has surged, officials say they have seen more transmission in schools, especially in higher grades. High school sports have been a particular source of infections, leading some states to suspend them, outraging many parents.
The increasing evidence that some schools could operate safely was good news for districts where students were faltering under remote learning. Unfortunately, it emerged just as a new wave of infections picked up and then quickly engulfed the country late last year and into the new one.
Many superintendents have watched the rising cases with anguish, as they saw their hopes of bringing more students back to school in the near future threatened.
“It doesn’t feel good to know that children need you — children that you dedicated your life to absolutely need you — and you can’t be there for them in the ways you normally could and would,” said Sharon L. Contreras, the superintendent of Guilford County Schools, North Carolina’s third-largest district.
As we enter 2021, vaccines are likely to change the picture — but more slowly than Dr. Contreras and many educators, parents and children would want.
Although many states are prioritizing educators for the vaccine, it will take months for all teachers to be fully vaccinated — leaving aside those who decline — and most children will likely not be vaccinated until fall at the earliest.
At the same time, a new variant of the coronavirus that is thought to be more contagious is spreading in the United States, complicating efforts to reopen classrooms.
All this means that many schools will likely continue to require masks and social distancing well into the 2021-22 school year. And while few districts have said so explicitly, many students may not see teachers or classmates in person until the fall.
Opening photographs, clockwise from top left: Victor J. Blue for The New York Times, Philip Keith for The New York Times, Christopher Lee for The New York Times