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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

America's public schools are ready for a return to classrooms this fall, but virtual learning still isn't going away.

What's happening: Whether to accommodate some families or cover for teacher shortages, many schools are holding onto remote classes for the fall. But much more than remote work, remote learning has been littered with problems and inequities.

By the numbers: At the end of the 2020–21 school year, only about 2% of K–12 students in the U.S. were attending virtual-only schools, and 70% were in traditional, in-person schools, according to the Burbio School Opening Tracker.

  • A sizable chunk — 28% — were in hybrid schools, which has typically meant some days in the classroom and some days at home.

Hybrid in a post-pandemic world will mean in-person school for most students with an all-remote option for those who want it.

  • "Districts have got to do it," says Larry Ferlazzo, a high school teacher in Sacramento. "If they don’t, parents will just find a charter school to send the students, and we’ll lose the students."
  • Vaccination rates for teens are far lower than those for adults, and young kids aren't eligible yet, so families with high-risk members remain wary of sending their kids back, though scientists say schools can safely reopen this fall.
  • There are also many Asian and Black families who are saying they want to keep their kids at home so they don't encounter racism at school.

And hybrid has perks worth carrying into the post-pandemic world.

  • Remote learning has helped address accessibility issues for students with disabilities.
  • The flexibility afforded by hybrid learning has become an essential part of life for many students. They've gotten jobs to supplement their family's income or have been helping out with child care at home and want to continue doing so after the pandemic.
  • And virtual instruction could eventually allow teachers in specialty subjects, like foreign languages or coding, to reach scores of students in rural, under-resourced schools, says Jon Hale, a professor of education at the University of Illinois.

But, but, but: "Before we can think of this as the future, we have to fix all the places where the technology still isn’t working," says Kevin Kumashiro, former dean of the school of education at the University of San Francisco.

  • Fears about learning loss during remote schooling have led many districts to go door to door to encourage parents to send their kids back, according to the Washington Post.
  • Pandemic-era virtual learning exacerbated a slew of existing inequities in the education system. Richer schools and students were able to harness technology to maintain relatively high-quality instruction, while poorer students fell behind with stripped-down curriculums or without reliable internet access.

And while new technologies could enrich public education, experts fear districts will use virtual school to cut costs through bigger class sizes and fewer teachers.

  • "The major problem is that online instruction will be used to cut down on the cost of human labor," Hale says. "It looks as though that’s how many districts are using it."

Go deeper

COVID's impact on Ohio education

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Ohio's K-12 school report cards were released Thursday, shining a spotlight on pandemic-related challenges that include spiking absenteeism and a significant drop in statewide test scores.

Why it matters: The state's annual reports provide families and taxpayers a snapshot of their district's academic achievement, spending and demographic data, while also shaping instructional decisions.

Updated Oct 14, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on equal opportunity in education

On October 14th, Axios race and justice reporter Russ Contreras discussed how education systems are preparing their students for equal opportunity and sustained success in life after school, featuring Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D-N.M.) and California State University Chancellor Joseph I. Castro.

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández demonstrated how the federal government can aid states in addressing education inequalities, the difficulties of recruiting teachers in rural areas, and her focus on alleviating poverty to give children better educational opportunities.

  • On the importance of hiring teachers who can relate to students on a community and cultural level: “We need to make sure that we are training teachers that come from the community that reflect the children that they are teaching, because then that’s where the aspiration starts.”
  • On improving infrastructure to support greater broadband access: “Creating that infrastructure in those communities so there’s good broadband, so they can stay connected to the world, so they can assign subjects and projects that require that students plug into the internet and gather information. That’s the broadband work that we need to do.”

Joseph I. Castro discussed how a counselor at a college fair opened up his eyes to educational opportunity, how student services play a central role in education equity, and how public universities are working to eliminate inequities for students.

  • On investing in student services: “I believe that we need to invest in our students. They are the next generation of leaders. In order for us to support them, we of course need to have extraordinary faculty members in the classroom...and we need to make sure that they have food and housing, access to technology, all the tools necessary to be successful.”
  • On California State University’s plans for an Equity Innovation Hub: “It will be a place where Hispanic serving institutions, like 21 of our Cal State campuses, as well as hundreds across the country, will be able to work together to serve students from Latino and other backgrounds and help prepare them for STEM fields.”

Axios Chief People Officer Dominique Taylor hosted a View from the Top segment with Bank of America president of Business Banking Raul Anaya and Eduardo Díaz, Smithsonian Latino Center director and interim director of the National Museum of the American Latino. They discussed how race and racism have shaped the history of the U.S., and how these effects are still being felt in the Latino community.

  • Eduardo Díaz on the influence behind Smithsonian’s recent program “Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past”: “With the murder of George Floyd, it was cathartic, it brought to bear a lot of underlying historical aspects of the way race and racism has shaped this country’s history and culture, and I think it was a pivotal moment when the Smithsonian needed to do something and step forward to address it…”

"Nation's Report Card" finds reading, math test scores falling pre-COVID

Photo: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

Test scores in both reading and math declined for 13-year-old students between 2012 and 2020, according to new data released Thursday from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).

Why it matters: It's the first major decline in the two subjects since the NAEP began tracking long-term academic achievement trends in the 1970s.