who’s in-person, and who can be? families’ access to and decisions about in-person instruction in the wake of COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic has dragged on, schools across the U.S. have responded in varied ways. Some are offering only remote instruction, while others are giving students the choice between remote and in-person instruction, either through a traditional in-person model or through a hybrid model involving a mix of in-person and remote instruction.

The US Department of Education recently announced plans to gather data on school instruction in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a much-needed effort, given the previous administration’s failure to support research on pandemic schooling. And yet, these efforts are likely to take time.

In the short-term, then, and particularly in context of heated debates about pandemic schooling, scholars, policymakers, and educators need data to understand which families have access to in-person instruction and what decisions families make when they have the choice between in-person and remote instruction.

My goal with this post is to help fill that gap. I’ll share some basic descriptive findings from a nationally representative survey of more than 2,000 US parents with children under 18. The survey, which I fielded through Ipsos’s iSay panel in December 2020, included questions about how parents’ youngest school-aged child (those old enough to be enrolled in K-12 education) was participating in school and, if they were participating remotely, whether they had the option for in-person school. Recent news reports have highlighted racial/ethnic and socioeconomic differences in parents’ support for in-person schooling. Building on these reports, I’ll present a basic descriptive overview of: 1) how students are participating in school, 2) which students have the choice between in-person and remote instruction (among those who are currently enrolled in a school; i.e., not homeschooling or delaying kindergarten), and 3) which students are choosing in-person instruction when they have the choice between in-person and remote school. A more detailed description of the methods can be found below.


Current Instruction

When we’re thinking about students and schooling during the pandemic, the first key question to ask is: How are students currently receiving instruction?

As of December 2020, and among school-age children:

  • 24% were receiving traditional in-person instruction
  • 17% were receiving hybrid instruction involving a mix of in-person and remote learning
  • 42% were receiving fully remote instruction
  • 17% were homeschooling or not in school (i.e., because they delayed kindergarten until next year)

Of course, those remote instruction numbers need some unpacking. Some of those students had the choice between in-person and remote instruction and chose remote instruction; others did not have a choice and could only receive remote instruction from their school. Among those receiving fully remote instruction:

  • 48% did not have the option for in-person instruction from their current school
  • 26% had the choice between traditional in-person instruction and remote instruction and opted for remote instruction
  • 26% had the choice between hybrid instruction and remote instruction and opted for remote instruction

Access to In-Person Instruction

This raises our next question: Who has the choice between in-person and remote instruction, and whose schools are still closed?

To answer this question, let’s look at students who were enrolled in a school (i.e., not homeschooling or delaying kindergarten), and let’s separate students who had the choice between traditional and remote instruction, students who had the choice between hybrid and remote instruction, and students who did not have a choice because their schools were only offering remote instruction.

Overall, roughly 43% of enrolled students had the choice between traditional and remote-instruction, 33% had the choice between hybrid and remote instruction, and 24% could only receive remote instruction.

Not surprisingly, these numbers vary for students from different groups. The chart below offers a breakdown based on students’ racial/ethnic backgrounds and parents’ education (whether either of the child’s parents has at least a bachelor’s degree). With the exception of Asian/Pacific Islander students, students whose parents have at least a bachelor’s degree are more likely to have access to in-person instruction than are students from the same racial/ethnic group whose parents do not have a bachelor’s degree. White students and Black students whose parents have bachelor’s degrees are also more likely than Hispanic/Latino students whose parents have bachelor’s degrees to have access to in-person instruction (87% and 92% vs. 73%). Hispanic/Latino students whose parents do not have bachelor’s degrees are the least likely to have access to any form in-person instruction (62%).

Decisions Regarding In-Person Instruction

Now, as we saw above, not all students who have a choice between in-person and remote instruction take the in-person option. Some students opt for remote instruction, instead. And that brings us to our next question: When students have the choice between in-person and remote instruction, who chooses the in-person option?

Once again, it’s useful to look separately at students who have the choice between traditional and remote instruction and at students who have the choice between hybrid instruction and remote instruction. Between these two options, families with the choice between hybrid and remote are more likely to stick with remote instruction (38%) than are families with the choice between traditional and remote instruction (32%).

First, let’s look at families with the choice between traditional instruction and remote instruction.

Given the choice between traditional instruction and remote instruction, the majority of families took the in-person option—69% overall. Only 31% of families with choice between traditional and remote instruction opted to keep their children home for remote instruction.

Those overall patterns, however, do hide some differences by race and parent’s education. As we see in the chart below, and among students who have the choice between traditional and remote instruction, those whose parents have at least a bachelor’s degree are more likely to choose in-person schooling than students whose parents do not have bachelor’s degrees. Among students whose parents have bachelor’s degrees, white and Black students are roughly equally likely to opt for in-person instruction (76% and 86%) when they have the option for traditional instruction. Among students whose parents do not have bachelor’s degree, white students are more likely than Black students to opt for in-person instruction (73% vs. 59%).

Next, let’s look at families with the choice between hybrid instruction and remote instruction.

Given the choice between hybrid and remote instruction, a little more than half of families took the in-person option—62% overall. Roughly 38% of families with the choice between hybrid and remote instruction opted to keep their children home for remote instruction.

Once again, though, these overall patterns hide some differences by race and parent education. When given the choice between hybrid and remote instruction, white children whose parents have at least a bachelor’s degree are most likely to take the option involving in-person schooling (78%). White students whose parents do not have bachelor’s degrees are less likely to take that option (56%), as are students from all other racial/ethnic groups. Black students whose parents do not have bachelor’s degrees (45%) and Asian/Pacific Islander students are particularly unlikely to take the option involving in-person instruction (BA: 38%; <BA: 43%).

Takeaways

Overall, these findings suggest that there are wide variations in families’ access to and decisions regarding in-person instruction.

When given the choice between traditional in-person instruction and remote instruction, nearly seven in ten families take the option involving in-person instruction. Families in which at least one parent has a bachelor’s degree are particularly likely to take the in-person option. Black and white students whose parents have bachelor’s degrees, for example, are roughly equally likely to opt for in-person instruction when they have the choice between traditional in-person schooling and remote instruction.

Hybrid instruction is less appealing for families than traditional in-person instruction, and that’s especially true for families of color and families in which parents do not have bachelor’s degrees. When given the choice between hybrid instruction and remote instruction, only about six in ten families take the in-person option. White students whose parents have at least a bachelor’s degree are most likely to take the in-person option when given the choice between hybrid and remote instruction. Other students, especially Black students whose parents do not have bachelor’s degrees and Asian/Pacific Islander students are less likely to take the in-person option when given the choice between hybrid and remote.

Next Steps

Obviously, these are just descriptive data – weighted to be nationally representative, but not controlling for other factors that might influence families’ access to or decisions regarding in-person instruction. My next step, then, will be to consider the factors that contribute to the patterns we see here. Certainly, there are lots of factors to consider and lots of variations to explain.

One thing to unpack here is why so many families are opting for in-person instruction and especially why parents with bachelor’s degrees are more likely to opt for in-person instruction, particularly when they have the choice between traditional and remote school. Evidence from the interviews my team and I have conducted with mothers during the pandemic suggests that the stress of working from home while supporting students in remote instruction may be one factor for families in making these decisions. Just yesterday, for example, I interviewed a mom I’ll call Janet.

Janet initially opted for remote instruction for her kindergartner and 2nd grader (and took her toddler out of childcare), because her mother-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer over the summer, and Janet wanted to reduce the possibility of exposing her to COVID-19. Janet’s husband, meanwhile, is an essential worker. So opting for remote instruction meant that Janet was working from home while also being the parent primarily responsible for helping the big kids with remote schooling and providing full-time care for her toddler.

Not surprisingly, this arrangement took a huge toll on Janet. She gained 40 pounds in three months. She was drinking more heavily than usual. Yelling at her kids. Resentful toward her spouse. Eventually, Janet’s therapist told her she had to send the kids to school/childcare.

Janet’s kids are now back in in-person school/childcare. And Janet is doing much better. It’s not perfect. There’s no aftercare because of the pandemic, so Janet can only work 9-3 unless she stays up late. But she’s sleeping more, eating better, drinking and yelling less.

And Janet isn’t alone. Preliminary analyses point to similar patterns in the national survey data. Compared to parents without bachelor’s degrees, parents with bachelor’s degrees were more likely to be working from home during the pandemic. They were also more likely to report high levels of stress and frustrations (including frustrations with their children) during the “worst two weeks of the pandemic,” and more likely to report that their stress and frustrations increased during the pandemic, as well. Preliminary analyses also suggest that parents who experienced more stress and frustration during the “worst two weeks of the pandemic” were more likely to opt for in-person instruction if they were given the choice between traditional and remote learning.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that parents who keep their children home aren’t stressed or frustrated. Many of those parents – especially mothers – are struggling, as well. And that’s why we need to do all we can to stop the spread of the virus and ensure that families are getting the support they need through this deeply difficult time.

Methods

Data

This study uses data from the Institutions Trust and Decisions (ITD) Study, a nationally representative, online survey which was conducted from November 30 through December 30, 2020 and which includes data from 2,016 US parents with children under 18. Participants were recruited through Ipsos’s iSay panels. iSay panel members are invited to take surveys in exchange for points which can be redeemed for incentives. Recruitment quotas were used to ensure that the demographics of the sample roughly correspond with the demographics of U.S. parents with children under 18. Post-stratification sample weights were then developed and applied in all analyses to further ensure the representativeness of the sample.

Sample

In this analysis, I focus on parents with school-age children. That includes children who are old enough to enroll in K-12 schooling, even if they are not currently enrolled (e.g., because they are homeschooling or because they are delaying kindergarten entry until the 2021-2022 school year). Surveys asked parents to name and discuss their youngest school-age child. 1,786 parents named a school-age child. Of these, 1,778 provided information about their child’s participation in school.

Variables

The primary dependent variables in this analysis measure families’ access to and decisions regarding various instructional options at the time of the survey (December 2020).

Type of Instruction Received. Surveys asked parents to report the type of instruction their child was receiving at the time of the survey. Options included traditional in-person instruction, hybrid instruction, remote instruction, homeschooling, and other arrangements (including not receiving instruction).

Access to In-Person Schooling. Parents who indicated that their child was receiving remote instruction were asked to report whether their child had the option of receiving in-person instruction from the school where they were currently enrolled. Parents could indicate that their child had the option for traditional in-person instruction, had the option for hybrid instruction, or did not have any option for in-person instruction.

The primary independent variables in this analysis are indicators are indicators of race/ethnicity and social class.

Child’s Racial/Ethnic Origins. Surveys asked parents to report the racial/ethnic origins of their youngest school-age child. Responses are grouped into five categories: 1) Asian, non-Hispanic, 2) Black, non-Hispanic, 3) Hispanic or Latino of any race, 4) white, non-Hispanic, and 5) Multiracial and other racial or ethnic or origins.

Parent’s Educational Attainment. Surveys ask parents to report the highest level of education they have completed. These responses are recoded into two categories: 1) parents who have completed at least a bachelor’s degree, and 2) parents who have not completed a bachelor’s degree. Education is an appropriate measure for social class in this analysis given that workers without bachelor’s degrees have had the highest risk of unemployment during the pandemic and are also the workers least likely to be able to work from home.


This post is cross-posted on parenthoodphd.com.

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