Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Thursday cheered President Biden for meeting the goal of reopening a majority of K-8 schools within his first 100 days in office, but he also acknowledged Black and Hispanic students returned to school at lower rates than their White classmates.
The Education Department released data showing that 54% of the schools were open for full-time in-person learning in March. And 88% of schools were open full-time or were offering a combination of in-person and remote education.
“Nothing can replace in-person learning, and thousands of schools have made that a reality for millions of students,” Mr. Cardona said in a statement.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, wasn’t impressed.
“Fifty-four percent is a failing grade in any classroom and we need to treat it as such,” said Mrs. Foxx, a North Carolina Republican who has criticized the administration for not pushing schools more strongly to reopen sooner.
While touting the meeting of the goal, Mr. Cardona acknowledged that the administration hasn’t been as successful in getting Black and other minority students back into class.
The latest numbers in the Education Department’s survey, conducted in March, are an improvement from earlier in the year. But while 51% of White fourth and eighth graders were in schools that are open full time, that was true for only 31% of Black and 30% of Hispanic students in those grades.
Twenty-eight percent of White students in those grades were in hybrid learning environments, in which they were able to go to class at least part of the time, compared to 20% of Black and Hispanic students, according to the survey.
Meanwhile, half of Black and Hispanic fourth and eighth graders were still completely learning remotely, compared to 21% of White students.
“While we’ve made important progress, I will not be satisfied until 100% of schools are safely open for full-time in-person learning for all students,” Mr. Cardona said.
“At the national and local level, we must act with urgency and bring every resource to bear to get more schools reopened full-time this spring and address the inequities that continue to persist in our classrooms and communities,” he said.
Progress has been equally uneven based on geography, the survey found. Half of all students in the South and Midwest were learning entirely in-person in March, compared to less than 20% in the West and Northeast. Still, the Northeast saw the largest gains, with Connecticut doubling its share of fourth-grade students learning fully in-person, from 17% to 35%.
Wyoming had the largest share of fourth grade students attending full-time in the classroom, at 94%, while California had the lowest, with 5%. Schools in rural areas were the most likely to be opened, while schools in cities have been the slowest to reopen.
The survey reflects a period of momentum in the push to open schools. In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said students could sit 3 feet apart in classrooms as long as they’re wearing masks, down from a suggested 6 feet. Several states adopted the smaller recommendation, allowing more students to return to schools.
At the same time, Mr. Biden was pushing states to make teachers and other school workers a priority in vaccine rollouts. Some governors ordered some or all of their schools to reopen in March, including in Arizona and Oregon.
Since then, schools have continued to reopen. States including Massachusetts and New Hampshire have ordered districts to invite students back to the classroom, and major districts elsewhere have started to reopen, including in San Francisco.
The Biden administration started the survey this year to track the pandemic’s effect on schools and students. It is based on responses from 3,500 public schools that serve fourth graders and 3,500 schools that serve eighth graders. Several states have declined to participate, including Montana, West Virginia and Utah.
The survey does not include high schools, which pose additional challenges and have been the slowest schools to reopen. Mr. Biden has acknowledged that high schools will take longer to reopen because of the higher risk of contagion among older students.
This article is based in part on wire-service reports.