The Return to Learn Tracker (R2L) is a tool developed by the American Enterprise Institute's (AEI) Education Policy Studies department, in partnership with the College Crisis Initiative (C2i) of Davidson College, that captures how US public school districts' instructional models change during the coronavirus pandemic. The tracker conducts original data collection examining which schools are offering fully in-person, hybrid, and fully remote instruction and analyzes instructional status across various district and county demographics.

Our goal is to provide a fundamental, up-to-date baseline of school districts' current reopening plans and how they change during the COVID-19 crisis. This tracker categorizes instructional models for about 8,500 school districts nationwide and regularly monitors how each district changes between categories. Accessible, accurate knowledge of districts' plans is foundational for developing strategies of how to best respond to the pandemic. We hope these data will serve school communities as they face ongoing decisions, provide the basic knowledge necessary for shaping policy across states, and allow other researchers to more accurately study how COVID-19 is upending and changing schools.

Our coding is based on district-wide policies collected from district webpages, social media announcements, or direct contact with a district representative. Idiosyncratic closures due to school-specific outbreaks are not reflected in our data unless they closed a grade range for the entire district for at least one week. To ensure uniformity in collector responses, the district’s operating plans are coded into three mutually exclusive categories: fully in-person, hybrid, or fully remote. These broad definitions allowed us to categorically separate district operating plans:

  1. Fully in-person. All grade levels can attend school in buildings five days per week, though families can opt for fully remote instruction or a hybrid model.

  2. Hybrid. Either students in some grades can return to buildings in person while other grades can only return in a hybrid or remote model or all students can return to buildings for four days or less each week (or five partial days) while learning remotely from home the remaining time.

  3. Fully Remote. All grade levels above first grade participate in virtual instruction five days per week, with no option for in-person or hybrid learning. Districts that only allowed in-person or hybrid instruction for prekindergarten, kindergarten, first grade, or select subgroups of students are included in this category.

R2L data can be reported at the district or school level, but the results should be explicitly understood for what is represented at each level. At the district level, percentages are the proportion of districts offering fully in-person, hybrid, or fully remote instruction at all schools. At the school level, percentages are of schools that belong to districts offering fully in-person, hybrid, or fully remote instruction at all schools. As such, in-person percentages cover only a portion of schools that have an in-person option available to all students, such as elementary schools open five days a week in a district in which high schools are remote or hybrid. Similarly, remote percentages capture a subset of schools that are fully remote and would not include fully remote high schools referred to above. We may refer to school percentages to communicate the extent of these categories, since district percentages equate three school districts with 500 school districts. Measures of the percentage of students in three categories are available from Burbio's excellent representative sample data.

R2L combines numerous data sources and uses new methods for ongoing data collection using web scraping, machine learning, and researchers to create a robust panel dataset for each district based on published school district website content. Current week and historical district instructional status data are presented for the nation as a whole, and by district demographic and socio-political variables–such as district poverty, voting history, and rates of broadband access–on the R2L dashboard for each week.

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These stacked bar charts display the percentage of districts in each category of instruction. Additionally, categories of instruction are displayed for categories such as poverty, in which high-poverty districts are above the national district average for the measure of poverty and low-poverty districts are above the average.

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Sankey diagrams are a type of flow chart in which the width of arrows is proportional to the percentage changing from one category to another over a given period. Sankey diagrams will also presented for districts with different characteristics to contrast different rates of change over time (coming soon).

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The map of COVID-19 cases and instructional offerings displays a heat map of counties by their seven-day average daily case rate per 100,000 population. Each colored dot represents a district color coded according to its instructional model for the current week.

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The state map presents the average percentage of districts with three or more schools in each category of instructional model for a given week.

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These rankings display the top and bottom 10 states ranked by the percentage of districts with three or more schools in each instructional model for a given week. We also classified districts by whether their operational status is "aggressive" or "cautious" relative to the districts' seven-day average of daily COVID-19 case rates per 100,000 for a given week. With no established standard for case rates and reopening plans, we benchmark aggressive and cautious districts on a standard of a seven-day average of 25 daily cases per 100,000 population (discussed below). 

  • Aggressive districts are those open fully in-person with a seven-day average of 25 daily cases per 100,000 population or higher in a given week. 

  • Cautious districts are those that are fully remote in an area with a seven-day average of 12.5 daily cases per 100,000 population or lower.

This standard was offered by the Harvard Path to Zero group in its July report “The Path to Zero: Key Metrics for COVID Suppression.” A subsequent Path to Zero report, “Schools and the Path to Zero: Strategies for Pandemic Resilience in the Face of High Community Spread,” published in December, noted that schools may operate safely in person with appropriate mitigation strategies at rates much higher than this rate. However, we use the rate Path to Zero used in July as a functional benchmark to identify districts with an above average risk tolerance, because historically many districts operate remotely at these caseload rates. We categorize cautious reopening districts as those that are fully remote at half this rate, or a seven-day average of 12.5 daily cases per 100,000. We do not use these categories to imply a judgment about these district decisions, but only to contrast those operating models with the majority of their peer districts.

Bar graph variable definitions

Poverty

Poverty indicates levels of household poverty in a district. High-poverty districts are above the national district average for the measure of poverty and low-poverty districts are below the national district average.

Source: Author’s calculations using R2L data and Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University, 2021, https://edopportunity.org/


Broadband

Note: Broadband indicates household access to broadband at the district level. High broadband refers to districts with broadband access above the national average. Low broadband refers to districts with broadband access below the national average. 
Source: Author’s calculations using R2L data and US Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2015–18


Urbanicity

Note: Urbanicity refers to whether the district is primarily located in urban, suburban or rural locales.
Source: Author’s calculations using R2L data and Common Core of Data, 2019, Nation Center for Education Statistics. 


Presidential Vote

Note: Presidential vote indicates counties’ voting histories in the 2020 election. “Majority Trump Votes” refers to a district that resides in a county the majority of the population voted for Donald Trump. “Majority Biden Votes” refers to a district that resides in a county where the majority of the population voted for Joe Biden.

Districts' Instructional Offerings by Week

Fully in-person districts allow all grades an option for full-time, in-person instruction 

Hybrid districts provide in-person instruction either part-week and/or only for some grades

Fully remote districts require virtual instruction for all grades, except small, targeted groups

More information on variable definitions

Change in Instructional Status Over Time

COVID-19 Cases and Instructional Offerings

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COVID-19 Caseload per 100,000

State Map

Percentage of school districts that are operating Fully Remote Hybrid Fully In-Person

State Rankings

We adhere to high standards in research methodology and practices, pursuing rigorous transparency in our approach to this work. This is a live data collection. Current and prior categorizations of districts may be misclassified. As such, we will be doing constant quality assurance over the upcoming months. Publications of previous data may change with additional corrections to the data. If you would like to submit a correction request, please contact us. Data are recent as of February 22, 2021. Please find a thorough description of R2L methodology and data here

“AEI would like to thank The Achelis and Bodman Foundation for its generous support that helped make the Return to Learn Tracker possible.”