Last month, I visited White Plains High School in Westchester County, New York, as part my school reopening tour across eight states and the District of Columbia . Seventy percent of high schoolers in the White Plains district are back to in-person learning. Over ninety percent of elementary aged students are back in classrooms. The school system has been open for in-person instruction since August, and they haven’t closed since.
That’s not because of a statewide government mandate to reopen, or because White Plains was spared by Covid-19. In fact, Westchester County was one of the hardest hit counties in New York early on in the pandemic. Even amidst those challenges, White Plains acted with a sense of urgency to reopen their schools — and for them to remain open. Through intentional collaboration among leaders, educators, and stakeholders, they put student and staff safety and success at the center of every decision. Today, students who have been in the classroom for months have benefited from it.
We need to make sure all students — from every background, circumstance, and zip code — are similarly set up for success. That’s why President Joe Biden has set a goal of reopening the majority of K-8 schools for in-person learning within his first 100 days. While this span of time seems brief, teachers, students, and parents know that each day of effective teaching and engaged learning counts toward the future.
Data released by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) last week confirmed we reached the President’s goal ahead of schedule: 54% of K-8 schools are physically open and offering full time in-person learning to all their students as of March, and 88% are offering full-time and/or hybrid learning. Over the past three months, we’ve seen schools and districts act swiftly and courageously to reopen their buildings while keeping students and staff safe. We’ve seen educators, families, and community leaders problem solve together to meet not just the academic, but also the social, emotional, and mental health needs of our students as they return to classrooms.
While we’ve made significant progress, anything less than 100% of students being offered the option to return to in-person learning full-time is not enough. We must continue to lead with the same urgency as the President to put every resource to bear to reopen more schools this spring. Waiting until the fall is too late. Because when it comes to helping students succeed, we don’t have a moment to spare.
The same data that showed over half of the nation’s public schools are open full time showed that enrollment in in-person instruction is not yet equal. According to the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the Department of Education, in fourth grade, 45% of Black students, 47% of Hispanic students, and 61% of Asian students, compared to just 19% of their white counterparts were still learning fully remotely in March. Moreover, IES found that even when a school offered in-person options to fourth grade students, 23% of Hispanic students, 30% of Black students, and 43% of Asian students were still enrolled in remote learning full time, compared to just 14% of White students.
We know fully remote learning cannot replace the learning and social interaction of in person education, and these trends could worsen gaps in academic access and opportunity based on race, ethnicity, disability, and other student characteristics. For far too long in our country, academic outcomes have been dictated by a student’s skin color or their circumstance. We must do more to build back better.
In speaking with educators, parents, and students, we know there are many reasons why some families are hesitant to return to in-person learning. Fears around transmission of the virus, especially in multi-generational households, have driven some of the conversation. But we must be honest with ourselves and with each other in listening to families who have said that schools weren’t working for their children in the first place, or that they don’t trust that the school system is safe for them due to the virus, violence or harassment, or any number of other reasons.
It is up to us as leaders — at the national, state, district, and local level – to listen, to find out what is driving these decisions, to build trust among our communities, and to make clear reopening efforts must put the needs and experiences of students impacted by the pandemic first. There has been no greater time to show student-centered leadership, and no greater time to show up for students.
State and local leaders must also act quickly to draw down the unprecedented $130 billion in federal funds available to them through the American Rescue Plan to get more school buildings open now — not just this summer, and not just next fall. States must focus particularly on delivering these funds quickly to high poverty areas, school districts that disproportionately serve students of color, and schools that serve high percentages of multi-lingual learners and students with disabilities. Every student should have the opportunity to hear their name spoken in the classroom this year.
Over $81 billion of these funds have already been made available to states. Districts and states can use the funds right now to expand in-person learning options, address inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and make in-person instruction safe and consistent for all students.
As they put these plans together, states and districts are required to engage with key stakeholders in local communities to ensure their voices, needs, and concerns are being incorporated into reopening strategies. Over the coming weeks, I encourage all families and educators to engage in these critical conversations about how to make sure these funds benefit students. Returning to in-person learning and instilling confidence in our communities will require urgency, investment, and leadership at the local level — and our students can’t wait.
The US Department of Education will continue to provide support and resources to schools and districts as they work to reopen — even as we hold them, and ourselves, accountable. With increased access to vaccinations for students and staff, billions in federal support, and ample evidence from districts that have demonstrated how they can safely operate in-person, schools should move quickly to reopen their doors.
The Department has also provided a repository of resources to help schools in these efforts. We will continue to convene stakeholders, leaders, students, and parents in the weeks and months ahead to develop and implement strategies to boldly confront inequities that were exacerbated by the pandemic. We know that as we heal, our decisions and actions on reopening and helping our students recover stronger will impact generations of learners.
Our inaction will too.
These next few weeks will prove critical for students of all ages, but particularly those disproportionately affected by the pandemic and at risk of falling further behind. Our educators and leaders have worked tirelessly to get us where we are today. Collectively, we must recommit to our mission of serving all students. That means not just opening back up for in-person instruction but building a world class education system that’s better than it was before March 2020. We must dedicate ourselves in the coming days to get all students safely back to in-person instruction: equitably and without exception.