Examining the disparities in school reopening last fall

Much was made about how virtual learning was an imperfect substitute for in-person education that left many sociodemographic groups behind. When schools reopened for in-person education, were those groups left behind again?

When the debate over reopening school raged last fall, one of the key points of discussion was how virtual learning along with the patchwork of reopening plans could worsen pre-existing inequalities in students. An investigation in JAMA Network Open looked at the sociodemographic characteristics and inequities linked to access to in-person or virtual school in elementary schools in New York State.1

The investigator included all students in 2498 public elementary schools from 704 school districts in New York State. Administrative databases were used to collect the sociodemographic characteristics, which ranged from race/ethnicity to students with disabilities.

Among the 1,140,540 students included in the study, 658,205 came from a low-income family; 208,416 with a disability; 131,002 English language learners, and 49,488 homeless. At mid-October 2020, 271 of the school districts had schools that were open full-time for in-person learning. This re-opening meant that 343,303 White students had access to in-person schooling, but just 92,384 (8.1%) Hispanic students and 60,449 (5.3%) Black students had that access. Additionally, children who were low-income (119,757 [10.5%] vs 326,194 [28.6%]), lived in an urban area (urban vs rural/suburban: 44 481 [3.9%] vs 809 783 [35.5%]), were learning English (74 135 [6.5%] vs 224 686 [19.7%]), were experiencing homelessness (31 935 [2.8%] vs 215 562 [18.9]), or had disabilities (164 238 [14.4%] vs 216 703 [19.0%]) were less likely to be able to have access to in-person instruction than those who were not similarly disadvantaged.

The investigators concluded that most of the districts that provided full-time, in-person elementary education were ones that were predominately attended by rural/suburban students, White students, or students who were not disadvantaged. Variations in COVID-19 burden were frequently not a factor in the reopening decision and those decisions were instead predicated on the ability for the school to pay for mitigation strategies that allowed safe school attendance. Other research indicates that students lost roughly one-third of a year’s learning between Fall 2019 and Fall 2020 and the impact on test scores were felt more significantly in Black students who saw declines that were roughly 50% greater than those seen in White students.

Reference

1. Fox A, Lee J, Sorensen L, Martin E. Sociodemographic characteristics and inequities associated with access to in-person and remote elementary schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic in New York state. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(7):e2117267. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.17267