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Schools across the country are grappling with whether the start of classes for an estimated 56.4 million kindergarten through 12th graders will be on a computer or in person. Here's a look at the 2020-2021 back-to-school policies of the nation's 225 largest public school districts, representing more than 16.2 million students or 28.8% of K-12 students nationwide

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In an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, 146 districts are starting the year entirely remotely for their 10.5 million students. Still, 52 districts, or a total of 3.2 million enrolled students, will have in-person instruction in the first weeks of school. The majority of these districts are in the South. Twenty-three districts will adopt a hybrid model that mixes face-to-face learning with online components. Among them is New York City, home to the nation's largest school district — with over a million students — and whose reopening plan will have students in classrooms two to three days a week.

Plans for getting kids back to school vary by state and school district. While several states allow school districts full discretion to determine their policies based on local COVID-19 conditions, states like Florida and Iowa have mandates to go back to in-person instruction five days a week unless granted an exception. In Florida, at least three large school districts with high COVID-19 case numbers — Dade School District (Miami), Broward County School District (Fort Lauderdale), and Palm Beach County School District (Palm Beach) — have permission to begin the school year online.

Sources and methodology

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) uses data from the US Census Bureau to match economic and demographic data to school districts across the nation. Data for the 225 school districts with the highest enrollment is joined here with COVID-19 case data from the closest county, using counts reported by local authorities and collected by USAFacts. Case counts for multiple counties are combined in instances where school district boundaries include more than one county. Reopening information for the top 225 school districts was collected from their websites between August 10 and August 17.

“In-person” means that students can opt to attend physical school five days a week. “Hybrid” means that students can attend certain days in-person but must attend other days online. “Online” means that students must all enroll in remote learning.

Footnote

There are cases where multiple public school districts might exist in the same area to serve different grade levels, such as a K-8 district and a high school district. To accommodate for this, the NCES data at times compresses districts and treats them as unified pseudo-districts. Additionally, the NCES writes that its data “…is limited to regular districts that are geographically defined, and it excludes ‘non-operating’ districts and ‘educational service agencies.’” The NCES offers data on the overall community associated with the school district as well as numbers specific to children enrolled in public school and their families.

There are 13,324 school districts reflected in the NCES data. Public school enrollment numbers exist for 11,910 districts, representing a total of almost 49.1 million schoolchildren.

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