Cover: Urban and Rural Districts Showed a Strong Divide During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Urban and Rural Districts Showed a Strong Divide During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Results from the Second American School District Panel Survey

Published May 11, 2021

by Heather L. Schwartz, Melissa Kay Diliberti, Lisa Berdie, David Grant, Gerald P. Hunter, Claude Messan Setodji

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Research Questions

  1. How did district leaders operate schools (in-person, fully remote, or otherwise) at the time of the survey?
  2. What changes have leaders made to the school schedule and instruction in 2020–2021?
  3. What do district leaders estimate teacher and parent support for in-person instruction and for the COVID-19 vaccine?
  4. How are districts using COVID-19 testing?
  5. How have student achievement levels been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
  6. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected student enrollments, spending, and staffing patterns for this school year and next?

Over the course of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, progressively more complete data have shed light on the tremendous variation in districts' approaches to schooling. Some districts have provided fully remote learning since the outset of the pandemic, some have mostly provided in-person learning, and others have fallen somewhere in between. In this report, we reveal the extent of the divisions in public education during the 2020–2021 school year, from the mode of delivery to the length of the school day.

RAND Corporation researchers fielded the second survey of the American School District Panel from January 21 through March 5, 2021. This report is based on survey responses from 434 district leaders, including 400 superintendents of traditional public school districts and 34 executive directors of charter management organizations. These leaders come from 48 states and the District of Columbia, and the districts vary greatly in size, racial composition, and levels of poverty. In this report, we summarize results from the survey.

Key Findings

Urban and rural districts show stark differences

  • Only 17 percent of urban districts, compared with 42 percent of rural districts, were offering fully in-person instruction to students as of February 2021. Suburban districts fell in between at 27 percent.
  • Rural district leaders perceived greater support for in-person schooling among both their teachers and their students' families than did urban or suburban leaders.

Most districts have cut instructional time, but many are offering extra services

  • More districts have shortened than lengthened school time — especially those offering any remote instruction. More than a third of such districts had shortened the school day, and a quarter had reduced instructional minutes.
  • Districts where a majority of students are of color were more likely than districts where a majority of students are white to have cut instructional minutes, likely because a higher proportion offered fully remote instruction.
  • More than half of districts overall, and about seven in ten urban districts in particular, offered tutoring and increased social and emotional learning programming.

District spending is the same or rising, although enrollment is declining

  • About eight in ten districts have not cut spending, and most foresee spending the same or more in 2021–2022. Similarly, many more districts have hired rather than fired school staff in 2020–2021.
  • District leaders have great concern about a shortage next year of substitute teachers, bus drivers, and teachers in several historically difficult-to-staff subject areas.
  • Two-thirds of districts lost some enrollment in 2020–2021; their average decline was 5 percent. This is twice as many districts and twice as large a decline as the year before.


  • In the next several years, districts — especially those that have cut school time while offering remote instruction — should focus on extending instructional time to make up for reduced school time in 2020–2021.
  • Districts should learn from peer districts that have already been enacting some of the most commonly discussed learning recovery strategies.
  • Districts should begin working now to recruit additional staff for 2021–2022.
  • The U.S. Department of Education should invest in improving the quality of online curriculum and offerings.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was conducted by RAND Education and Labor and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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