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Pa. and N.J. racial gap in access to in-person learning last year was among the worst in the nation, new report says

The analysis reflects a pattern visible this year throughout the Philadelphia region: Suburban schools were generally quicker than urban districts to open in person.

As some schools began to welcome students back in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic, white students were more likely than Black students and other students of color to have access to in-person classes, a national study found. The gaps were widest in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
As some schools began to welcome students back in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic, white students were more likely than Black students and other students of color to have access to in-person classes, a national study found. The gaps were widest in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

As schools moved to bring children back during the pandemic, students of color in Pennsylvania and New Jersey were less likely than white students to have the choice to attend in person. And the access gaps between those groups in the two states were among the widest in the country, according to a report released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report by authors including Brown University economist Emily Oster, who advocated this year for reopening schools, tracked information on school instructional models between September 2020 and April 2021. In New Jersey it found nonwhite students were more likely to be limited to virtual school compared to their white peers at a margin greater than in any state.

Pennsylvania wasn’t far behind, with the second-largest gap between white and nonwhite students given only the option of virtual learning.

The report covered 1,200 districts nationwide, sampling representative districts in the highest populated counties and accounting for 46% of public school enrollment. Only about a third of public school enrollment in Pennsylvania and New Jersey was included. The analysis was based on districts totaling 633,000 Pennsylvania public school students, which likely included Philadelphia, where learning remained virtual for most of the year.

Still, the analysis puts numbers to a pattern visible this year throughout the Philadelphia region: Suburban schools were generally quicker to open in person than urban districts.

“Schools that aren’t as crowded or had updated facilities might have been more likely to offer in-person instruction,” said Erica Frankenberg, an education professor at Pennsylvania State University who last summer found wide gaps in the programs offered to white, Black, and Hispanic students as Pennsylvania districts began the school year. At the time, just 24% of the state’s white students lived in districts planning to reopen with all-virtual instruction, while 72% of Black students and 61% of Hispanic students did not have an in-person option.

Frankenberg also noted the vast number of school districts in Pennsylvania (500) and New Jersey (600). “It stands to reason that small, typically homogeneous districts might respond differently to their population (and, potentially teachers),” Frankenberg said.

Though the two states had the starkest gaps, the trend was a national one. Across the country, students of color were less likely to have access to full-time in-person instruction, according to the report. It noted that hospitalization and mortality rates from COVID-19 “have been higher in communities of color, and districts serving a larger share of these students might have faced more significant public health challenges as they made decisions about reopening schools.”

The disparities “underscore the importance of decreasing community transmission and of increasing equitable access to full-time, in-person learning for the 2021-22 school year,” it said.

Alyana Alfaro, a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Murphy, said the governor “knows that there is no substitute to in-person education” and noted that he had required all schools in New Jersey to provide full-time, in-person instruction for the coming year.

In Pennsylvania, a spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf said the state’s Department of Education was helping schools move forward by providing resources to assess student achievement and social and emotional needs.

With the federal money coming to Pennsylvania schools, as well as added state funding, “we will further address disparities that have been an issue long before and after the pandemic,” said spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger. She said the state could not confirm the data in the report without updated information from schools.

» READ MORE: COVID-19 has upended education. How will schools solve for learning loss?

The report used publicly available information, including school district websites and Facebook pages, to determine what instructional models districts were using, and applied district-level demographic enrollment data collected by the U.S. Department of Education for the 2019-20 school year. Because many schools shifted models throughout the year, the report calculated averages for the time period.

But, it noted, it didn’t account for how students actually attended school last year — only what options they had.

“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,” it said.

While access to in-person school grew in 2021, the report found racial gaps remained. In April, 75% of white students had access to full-time, in-person instruction, compared to 63% of Black students and 59% of Hispanic students.

And there were enormous regional differences. In Florida, for instance, more than 98% of students had access to full in-person instruction last year; in Pennsylvania, 22% did, and in New Jersey, just 6.7%. (The average for the South was 62%, and the Northeast, 16%, according to the report.)

Schools this fall will have to consider not only educational gaps, but “considerations around rebuilding trust — perhaps especially with families of color — and even rebuilding community,” Frankenberg said.

The numbers do not surprise Dannielle Brown Qazi, whose daughter, Joan Brown, struggled in her freshman year at Paul Robeson High in West Philadelphia. Joan spent most of the year behind a computer — Philadelphia School District ninth graders didn’t have the option of returning to buildings until mid-May, and students in grades 10 through 12 never returned.

“Joan went from an honor roll student to maybe a C-D student online,” said Brown Qazi, who works as a special education assistant at a Philadelphia charter school that also remained fully virtual. “To say it was a big disappointment is an understatement. I was frustrated as a parent, and as an educator.”

Things improved considerably when school buildings reopened, Joan Brown said.

“I’m a better learner hands-on,” Joan said. “It was just way easier to learn.”

David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, said he was not surprised by the disparities.

“The data confirms those structural inequities brought about by structural racism in the system, and state policies that contribute to that,” Sciarra said. “These disparities are really the result of policies that consign students of color to certain school districts in large, overwhelming numbers and systemically under-resources them to deal with student and school needs.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at