We are currently in the midst of rising infection rates in a majority of states. Is it safe for children to go back to school?
As a recent episode of The New York Times podcast The Daily makes clear, even the best science can’t answer that question.
We can, however, look at whether or not parents and teachers believe it is safe to go back to school. Based on recent data, the answer is “no,” at least not until our educational institutions can ensure that schools are adequately equipped to protect teachers, students, and the community at large.
We also know that if people do not perceive sending children to school as safe, it’s unlikely schools will be filled, even if they’re open.
An Economist / YouGov poll from mid-July finds significant skepticism over schools opening to in-person instruction. Only 13% of parents with children under 18 say schools should open “completely in-person,” with an additional 18% saying “mostly in-person, and some online.”
That combined 31% is identical to the percentage who believe that school should be “completely online.” Add in another 26% who believe school should be “mostly online,” and we see a clear preference (57%) for virtual over in-person instruction this fall.
A Kaiser Family Foundation survey (KFF) from mid-July finds a similar 60% of parents who believe that “it is better to open schools later to ensure the risk of getting coronavirus is as low as possible,” even if that may mean missing out on academics or school services.
Previous polls have shown that confidence in opening schools tracks with the overall state of infection rates. The KFF survey shows a 10% increase between May and July in the percentage of people who think “the worst is yet to come” with the coronavirus pandemic, now reaching 60% — the same percentage of those who are wary of opening schools.
Some of this skepticism may be related to a general wariness and even distrust of some of our institutions, a wariness that predates the pandemic. In our 2018 Willow Poll of a nationally-representative sample of consumers, only 35% said they were “extremely” or “very” confident in both their state and local governments and their public school systems.
Confidence among women — who we know are much more likely to be involved in their children’s schooling — is even lower, with only around one-quarter saying in 2018 that they were “extremely” or “very” confident in these important institutions.
Likewise, a recent study of teachers by EdChoice found that teachers lack confidence in many of the institutions that are involved in making decisions about education. In that June 2020 survey, fewer than one-third of teachers said that they have a lot of trust in each of the following: school district superintendents, the U.S. Department of Education, school boards, and their state and local governments. Instead, teachers place more confidence in teachers (63%) and parents (44%).
The KFF poll shows that parents simply don’t believe the resources are in place for schools to open safely. Two in three parents (66%) say that their school needs more resources to reopen safely, and four in five (83%) say that it is important to increase federal funding to state and local governments to help schools reopen safely.
Parents are concerned about harms to their children’s social and emotional development, as well as their academic progress, but it appears that in the absence of trust in institutions, they are chiefly concerned about protecting the members of their community from the pandemic, including teachers.
The predominant worry among parents is that teachers and staff will get sick, with 79% saying they’re “very” (54%) or “somewhat” (24%) worried. This is greater than the number who worry about their own child getting sick (70%).
It is clear that parents and teachers are taking the coronavirus seriously, but there also appears to be a gap between the kind of support they feel is necessary and what is actually being received. Unless and until that gap is closed, it seems likely that we’ll continue to see skepticism and distrust of institutional responses to the current educational crisis.