Week of 1/4: 2021 Outlook

Virtual-only learning rose further above 50 percent this week as additional schools went virtual upon returning from school break. We expect this to be a peak that will lower gradually over the course of January. Please see below for our assessment of the landscape in 2021.

Virtual-only learning rose further above 50 percent this week as additional schools went virtual upon returning from school break.  We expect this to be a peak that will lower gradually over the course of January.  Please see below for our assessment of the landscape in 2021.  

Burbio School Opening Tracker- Map

% US K-12 students attending "virtual-only" schools = 53.4% (from 50.8% last week)
% US K-12 students attending "traditional" In-person/every day" schools = 31.7%
% US K-12 students attending "hybrid" schools = 14.9%

The above percentages are set to Monday January 4th. Our data is presented as "students attending schools that offer this learning plan" - most districts also offer virtual even when providing in person. For above, 53.4% of US K-12 students are currently attending schools that offer virtual-only plans, 31.7% offering traditional, etc.

1) To review, Burbio launched the audit on August 11th showing 52% "virtual only" and it shifted dramatically as the month went on and increased to 62% by Labor Day as large districts across the US postponed in person plans due to Covid-19 rates rising and stakeholder concerns.  Post-Labor Day, large Sun Belt cities such as Houston, Dallas and Miami returned in person, plus communities across the Northeast and the Midwest, and by early November  only 37.8% of US K-12 students were attending virtual-only schools.   Since mid-November, Covid-19 related closures of mid-size city districts across the Midwest and widespread closures in states such as Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Michigan and Minnesota all drove the "virtual" number higher.   Since mid-December many suburban districts across the Northeast and Midwest have gone virtual for precautionary reasons, and as of Monday, January 4th we are showing 53.4% of US K-12 students now attending virtual only schools.  


2) The virtual-increase since our report the week before Christmas was driven by post-break in-person closures, primarily in the Northeast.   Districts such as Yonkers, NY, Lower Merion, PA, Central Islip, NY, and Ridgewood, NJ are just a few of many that are virtual this week but  plan to return to in-person the week of 1/11 or after the MLK Day holiday.    We also expect many additional districts  in the Midwest and Northeast that went virtual-only in early  December due to Covid-19 to return on a similar time frame, as well as some of the mid-size city districts in the Midwest that closed before Thanksgiving. Of note, Kentucky released guidance on allowing in-person education as soon as January 11th after closing all schools before the New Year.  


3) As we have previously noted, quarantine related closures have crippled many districts ability to keep schools open.  In Utah the Governor announced revised guidelines that will eliminate the need for quarantine in certain circumstances, as did the Governor of Ohio.  This follows adoption of revised quarantine rules in many states to 10 days from 14 following changes in CDC guidance. 


4) In heavily virtual regions, we have begun to see state level directives intended to kick-start in-person learning in the coming months.   The governor of West Virginia, a hybrid-heavy state that went largely virtual during the recent Covid-19 spike, directed in-person, every day instruction for all K-8 students to begin by January 19th. with high school students in-person every day in regions with lower Covid-19 levels. On a separate track, Oregon Governor Kate Brown directed state agencies to lay the groundwork for the introduction of in-person learning for younger students by February 15th.   The Oregon letter to state agencies offers a window into the dialogue in states where over 90% of students are learning virtually.  In other virtual-heavy areas, Washington Governor Inslee announced new guidance designed to make it easier for younger students in particular to return to the classroom in 2021, as did California Governor Newsom.     Minnesota Governor Tim Walz  announced a plan to make it easier for younger students to return to the classroom as soon as January 18th.  


5) As 2021 begins with everything from new Federal initiatives to ease the opening of schools to vaccine implementation on the horizon, we believe it is a good time to provide a framework for how K-12 in-person learning is being implemented at the state level around the US.  It's a bit of a continuum, but we think about it as three different buckets:


a) Just over one-third of K-12 students live in regions with a strong track record of traditional, in person learning, concentrated in the Sun Belt, the Rockies and parts of the Midwest.  States where over two-thirds (in some cases, almost 100 percent)  of students can currently attend school every day include Wyoming, Florida, Arkansas, South Dakota, Nebraska, Louisiana, Utah, Texas, Georgia, and Mississippi.   Similar states (in the 40-60 percent "traditional" range, with numbers somewhat depressed by recent Covid spikes) are Arizona, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Vermont.   These states tend to offer hybrid where it's not traditional and outside of some major metros where in-person has never been offered (more on that below) we expect quick "returns" to in-person in the pockets that are currently virtual in this group.  West Virginia, with it's recent action by the Governor, will join this group if the directives are implemented, and Tennessee was heavily "traditional" outside of metros this Fall before a recent shift to virtual so we would put Tennessee in this category as well.   


b) Just over 25% of students are in districts that implement hybrid learning as their preferred form of instruction.  As of this writing, some of these regions are temporarily virtual due to Covid 19 precautionary shutdowns, but they include (again, outside of urban districts) Northeastern states from Pennsylvania and Delaware on up, and Midwestern states such as Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, and Kansas.  The Midwestern states cited also have many districts with traditional learning, while outside of Vermont the Northeast in-person skews heavily hybrid.  We expect these regions to return most students to classrooms in the next 6-8 weeks where they aren't already in-person.       


An additional  "virtual-skewing" group that we would still put in this bucket are North Carolina, Kentucky, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin. These states have bigger blocks of "never in-person areas"  and are largely virtual currently but have established precedents for in-person learning and short-to-medium term plans to add in-person after recent Covid 19 spikes.  


On an important note, to date we have seen little to no discussion of "hybrid" districts converting their students to traditional in person every day so that will remain a policy issue to watch. 


c) The third segment of the US is the "never been in-person at all" area which also makes up just over 1/3 of the country.    It consists of  large portions of entire states on the West Coast (California, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Nevada), the Mid Atlantic (Maryland, Virginia, DC) plus urban districts outside those states such as Chicago, Philadelphia. Kansas City, Cleveland, and Atlanta, to name a few.  Current plans to introduce in-person instruction in these areas begin with K-2/K-5 and at risk students.   Timelines for the introduction of in-person vary widely from late January to early April.  In many cases these regions postponed or reversed in-person plans at the last moment during the Fall.  The road to in-person learning in these regions involves a combination of loosening state level regulations and contentious negotiations with unions around a wide range of stakeholder issues.  There is also little to no discussion of bringing high school students into the classroom at any point in the future in these regions.


We  expect the percentage of students attending virtual-only schools to drop over the course of the next six weeks as districts in hybrid-heavy bucket "b" above return after Covid 19-induced breaks and the mid-size cities in bucket "a" that were in person in the Fall and went virtual over the holidays return to in-person     But the myriad of regulatory and labor obstacles to any in-person learning in group "c" and the high level of hybrid instruction across the US means that the balance of the 2021 academic year will continue to be highly disrupted for the vast majority of K-12 public school students.  


Burbio data was featured in this November 20th overview of school closures in USA Today plus a recent segment on CNBC. Burbio data has been cited in CNBC stories about racial inequality in education and the impact of virtual learning on retail sales Axios led with the data in a piece on virtual learning glitches; Bloomberg in multiple stories as well as NPR Marketplace. Burbio has also been cited by JohnsHopkins Center for Health Security in a recent newsletter,The Information in a piece about Ed Tech as well as CNBC in a piece about working parents and virtual education. an NBC News piece about physical stress of remote learning on children and the USC Center for Health Journalism. NPR highlighted our data in a piece summarizing Fall school openings. and Axios featured Burbio in a piece about the instability of school openings. CNBC featured Burbio data in a piece about how disruption in K-12 education is affecting women in the workforce. CBS featured Burbio data in an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci and Politico has featured Burbio data in a variety of pieces on national K-12 trends. Burbio data has been a resource for numerous government organizations, academic researchers, trade associations, think tanks and non-profits.

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