The Remote-Option Divide

As schools push ahead with plans to hold classes in person, only some parents are going to have a choice as to whether to keep their kids home.

A photograph of a child's set of hands on a laptop and an adult's set of hands next to them at a table.
Maggie Shannon / The New York Times / Redux

On August 9, faculty and administrators in the Clark County School District—which serves Las Vegas and surrounding areas—welcomed students back to classrooms for full-time in-person instruction. And, at the beginning, leaders of the nation’s fifth-largest school district were cautiously optimistic; aside from difficulty with air-conditioning in some buildings, the first day went off without issue.

Eight days after classes began, though, there was already a coronavirus outbreak. An elementary school in the district was forced to switch to virtual learning for at least two weeks because of an unknown number of cases that necessitated testing all of the potentially exposed students, faculty, and staff.

The situation playing out in Clark County and similar such early closures illuminate one of the reasons many parents are worried about the year ahead. A bitter reality is that many schools will be closing intermittently this year, and not every school has a back-up plan in place—or an ongoing remote option if parents want to avoid the classrooms altogether. For many families, the decision about how their students will learn this semester is already beyond their control.

According to a database from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research center, a large majority of districts are offering families a remote option. But the availability of this option has fallen unevenly: Nearly 90 percent of districts in the database where more than a third of students are white are offering a remote option, while two-thirds of the districts with fewer than 15 percent of white students are. (The CREP study differentiated between those districts that are offering remote options to all of their students and those offering them only to some. Districts that are offering limited options to those with a specific medical reason did not count as having remote learning in the analysis.) This is not just about resources. As Jennifer Jennings, a professor and education researcher at Princeton University, puts it, “Who do we give a right to make choices about what is safe enough for their kids?”

All things being equal, Jennings told me, being in school is better for most kids’ academic and social development, so it makes sense that districts are trying to arrange to keep as many students in desks as possible. A recent working paper examining online learning programs for college students versus face-to-face instruction found that students who attended in person typically received better grades. Though the study focused on higher education, a number of its findings—that some students’ lack of high-speed broadband access or technology for remote learning—are clearly relevant for K–12 as well. As a USA Today survey showed, five months into the 2020–21 school year, nearly half of the largest school districts in the United States had not yet distributed laptops or internet hotspots to all of their students.

Prioritizing in-person learning should not preclude districts from offering a remote option, either as ongoing choice for parents who would like to keep their kids out of the classroom or as a Plan B for when in-person class is canceled. Though some state legislatures, such as Texas’s, have said they will not fund remote schooling, money made available by federal coronavirus relief packages allows districts the flexibility to provide such an option even without a state’s backing. Still, many districts, such as D.C.’s, are committed to the idea that in-person learning (however difficult to do well) is better. The past year has proved how challenging it is for teachers to teach online and in person at the same time, and district leaders also worry that with an unrestricted remote option, too many students who need to be in classrooms will remain online.

There are going to be costs to not having a remote option, though. In the event of temporary closure—or mandatory quarantine for students who are infected—students will simply miss their lessons. The majority of the districts that do not have a remote option also lack plans to ensure that students’ education continues uninterrupted, or they’re not publicly posting it, Bree Dusseault, a researcher with the Center on Reinventing Public Education, told me. Dusseault, herself a former administrator, stressed that early and frequent communication is vital to helping students figure out how to continue learning, should they have to miss multiple weeks of school. “Districts should want to be proactive and have an outline well before any outbreak,” Dusseault told me. “It’s very hard, when you’re in the middle of an outbreak, to set up remote learning on the fly while you’re also trying to do contact tracing and get kids back to their homes.”

Though nearly 90 percent of parents say they intend to send their children to school in person this fall, according to a recent survey, less than a third knew which safety measures would be in place. That makes planning for the fall maddening for parents. “We’re giving certain kinds of families in certain kinds of districts the opportunity to make that choice for their kids and trusting them to do so, and in other places we’re not,” Jennings told me.

Ironically, the districts least likely to offer a remote option are also those most likely to be populated by the groups who would most make use of it. According to the Understanding America Study, a majority of nonwhite families were happy with their students’ online experience last year. Two-thirds of Asian families expressed satisfaction with fully remote schooling, while slightly less than 60 percent of Black families and Hispanic families did. By contrast, just one-third of white families agreed. Still, those are the families that are most likely to be provided with the option.

It’s difficult to forecast, nationally, what the next several months will look like for classrooms. America’s schools—and school policy—aren’t organized at a federal level.

But for those districts without a remote option, the timing could not be worse. In mid-August, the number of children hospitalized with COVID-19 hit a record high of just over 1,900. And although that is only 2 percent of overall COVID-19 hospitalizations, it is still a reason to pause. “When we’re dealing with kids, we want to be extra careful,” Jennings told me. “Not to say you have to stay at home until this is all sorted out, but rather, let’s use the tools that we have to keep students as safe as we can. Nobody who wants to be in teaching wants to teach kids through the lens of the computer,” she said. “But I also know what a children’s hospital is like, and I don’t want anyone to have to go through that.”