3 ways rural and urban districts diverged during COVID

Rural school systems reopened their buildings to in-person instruction more swiftly while leaders of districts of all sizes provided more tutoring and hired rather than fired staff.
By: | May 7, 2021
More than 40% of rural districts were offering full-time in-person instruction as of February, compared to only 7% of urban districtsMore than 40% of rural districts were offering full-time in-person instruction as of February, compared to only 7% of urban districts.

Leaders in rural school systems reopened their buildings to in-person instruction more swiftly than did urban districts.

More than 40% of rural districts were offering full-time in-person instruction as of February, compared to only 7% of urban districts, according to a new survey of school district leaders by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

Not surprisingly, the survey revealed an opposite pattern for remote learning: 29% of urban districts were fully remote compared with 10% of rural and 18% of suburban districts.

Remote learning has had a direct impact on instruction: More than a third of the remote districts offering had also shortened the school day in early 2021 while a quarter had reduced instructional time.


More from DANumber of districts lifting COVID restrictions accelerates


“This survey shows how the choice of remote instruction has ramifications that extend beyond longstanding concerns about the lower quality of remote instruction,” said Heather Schwartz, lead author of the report and director of the Pre-K to 12 educational systems program at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

“Rural districts—which were primarily fully in-person or hybrid—did not decrease instructional minutes as often as urban districts, which means that urban students of color have likely lost more instructional time this school year than their white counterparts in rural districts,” Schwartz says.

The survey, fielded to RAND’s American School District Panel, also found

  • Tutoring: Many districts added additional services to help students overcome COVID challenges. More than half of districts—and about seven in 10 urban districts—provided tutoring and more social and emotional learning in 2020-2021.
  • Spending: About eight in 10 districts did not cut spending in 2020-2021, and most foresee spending the same or more next academic year.
  • Hiring: Many more districts hired rather than fired staff this academic year, and expect to do the same in 2021-22.
  • Enrollment: Two-thirds of districts lost some enrollment, reporting an average decline of 5%. This is twice as many districts, and twice as large a decline, as in 2019-2020.
  • Staff shortages: District leaders worry about a shortage of substitute teachers and bus drivers, as well as teachers in historically difficult-to-staff subjects in the coming school year.