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Latest CDC Study Tells Us What We Already Know About Illinois’ Learning Disparities

Collinsville School District 10 music teacher, Jennifer Bhooshan, teaches students at Webster Elementary school on Oct. 1. Students of color are about 10% less likely to have access to in person learning during the pandemic than their white counterparts.
File photo | Derik Holtmann
Bellville News-Democrat
Collinsville School District 10 music teacher, Jennifer Bhooshan, teaches students at Webster Elementary school on Oct. 1. COVID-19 restrictions has forced Bhooshan to become creative in the way she teaches music, since students are not allowed to share instruments.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.

Students of color in Illinois and across the vast majority of the country are less likely to have access to in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic than their white peers, a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.

The study, released Tuesday, echoed the same conclusions about racial disparities in education during COVID found in earlier surveys and research, including from the U.S. Department of Education, McKinsey & Company and the EdWeek Research Center.

The CDC looked at which students had full-time in-person learning, hybrid learning or fully remote learning between September and April. Since January, the study found that in-person learning increased nationally among all groups of students, although white students continued to see the greatest gains in access.

Reduced access to in-person learning is associated with poorer learning outcomes and adverse mental health and behavioral effects in children, according to the study. The study looks only at access to in-person learning and did not delve into the actual learning outcomes this school year.

In Illinois, students of color — defined as any student who is Hispanic and/or not white — are estimated on average to have 9.7% less access to fully in-person school than white students. While the disparity between white students and students of color is smaller in Illinois than the Midwest as a region, where the difference was 20.1%, Illinois had the smallest percentage of students overall with access to in-person learning in the region.

Regionally, 37.1% of students in the Midwest had access to fully in-person learning, which was second only to the South, with 62.5%. In Illinois, the most populous state in the Midwest, only 10.1% of students had access to fully in-person learning between September and April.

The study notes that it is looking at access, not actual attendance numbers.

“Some evidence suggests that families of color are less likely to opt in to full-time in-person school, even when it is an option, because they are more likely to be concerned about their child contracting COVID-19 and about students not complying with COVID-19 mitigation practices in schools,” the study said.

By May 3, 21.8% of students in Illinois had access to fully in-person school, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education — a rate more than double what the CDC reported in April. According to the CDC, the data skewed toward more populous counties. The districts chosen represent 46% of all K-12 students, but 90% of students in the 232 most populous U.S. counties.

Rural counties, which tend to have smaller population densities and fewer students of color, were underrepresented in the CDC data. Meanwhile urban districts, which tend to serve more students of color, had higher population densities, increasing the public health risk of fully reopening schools.

In St. Clair County, nearly all of the school districts started the 2020 school year remotely, citing a spike in COVID cases noted by the health department. Within a few weeks, many districts started to shift to hybrid learning, pulling back when local cases started to trend upwards.

East St. Louis School District 189, though, stayed fully remote until March of this year. The district is almost entirely Black and low-income. Echoing the reasoning the CDC survey gives, Superintendent Art Culver said the COVID case rates within district limits made reopening riskier than in even neighboring districts.

To increase equitable access to full-time in-person learning in the fall, the CDC said school leaders should focus on implementing prevention strategies, increasing vaccination rates for teachers and older students and reducing community transmission.

ISBE signaled to school districts that they should be focusing on returning to full in-person learning in the fall, during a May meeting where the board approved a resolution requiring schools offer in-person learning.

Megan Valley is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat (or other outlet), a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Megan Valley covers education at the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio. She is also a Report for America corps member.

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