Many risks are associated with sending young people back to school buildings this fall. Conversely, many risks are associated with not doing that.
President Donald Trump, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Dr. Anthony Fauci, state governors, and all manner of experts and pundits opine on what these two risk ledgers entail for families, students, educators, and the public at large.
The effect has been to place the physical reopening of schools at the center of a national debate-not always a bad thing-and simultaneously create a political frenzy-not always a good thing.
Lost in this hullabaloo is what parents think about reopening schools.
Their voices are chronicled by Echelon Insights in a nationally representative survey of 500 public school parents and guardians who were asked for eight consecutive weeks from late April through mid-June about the effects of COVID-19. (The Walton Family Foundation, where I am a senior adviser, supported the project to elevate the overlooked voices of parents and guardians in COVID-19 decisionmaking. The effort was led by the National Parents Union with Echelon retaining control over survey-instrument development, administration, and data reporting.)
Here are five lessons we learned from the voices of parents and guardians that should guide Congress, K-12 and public-health policymakers, and other stakeholders as they consider whether to reopen school buildings and how to support parents.
1. Education is a major source of parents' current anxieties: Since April, three of the top four parent concerns have consistently focused on schools: A majority of parents worry about school closures hurting their children's education, about kids missing out on social interactions, and about students staying on track for the next grade.
What assistance do they think would be most helpful now?
Three responses predominate: Parents say they want help "keeping my children engaged in good activities" (52 percent, up from 46 percent in April); more information to support children's learning (30 percent, up from 28 percent); and access to high-speed internet (consistent around 30 percent).
Finally, parents across income, racial, and political groups have been increasingly in agreement that schools should provide students with the hardware, other tools, and connectivity needed for school.
2. Parents don't agree on when it is safe to go back to school: When asked when they would feel safe sending their own children back for in-person classes, 27 percent of parents say August or September, with 17 percent preferring to wait until later in the fall. A roughly equal share of parents opt for winter (14 percent) or spring (15 percent), while 10 percent say "not any time in the next school year," and 18 percent were unsure.
These opinions vary across racial, political, and economic lines. White parents are more likely than parents of color to say they want to send children back in August or September-34 percent versus 19 percent. Republicans are more than twice as likely as Democrats to say this-34 percent versus 16 percent-with Independents at 30 percent. Parents in households earning more than $75,000 yearly are nearly twice as likely than those earning less than $50,000 to say they will feel safe by August or September.
Parent opinions on this issue are further fractured along categories including gender, education level, employment condition, marital status, and religion. This considerable range of opinions raises significant equity issues when it comes to how district leaders respond to this diversity. In short, that response will need to offer equitable participation options for the new school year for parents making different choices. It must begin by ensuring that all students have access to the technological resources they need for online learning. Educators need to be nimble in supporting these options. And federal aid should not unduly constrain how state and local officials can use those dollars.
3. Expert opinion is key in determining school safety measures: Parents are clear on whose opinions they "trust most to establish and valuate school safety procedures." Nearly half (49 percent) choose public-health officials, identifying the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (24 percent), state health officials (13 percent), or local health officials (12 percent) as their most trusted source of safety procedures. Next are governors (9 percent) and school district leaders (8 percent), with the remaining third of responses split among a host of other individuals and organizations. These responses indicate that school policymakers should work closely with public- health experts to earn parents' trust.
4. Parents want concrete action to keep schools safe: Many of the survey respondents support notifying parents when someone in school becomes ill (63 percent), allowing vulnerable students and teachers to learn and teach from home (56 percent), providing students and staff mental-health support for issues tied to the pandemic (52 percent), and requiring temperature checks when entering school (50 percent). These procedures are aligned with recommendations from public- health officials.
They are also a starting point to which can be added other recommendations from public-health officials-including handwashing stations, protective equipment, spaced-out desks, and fewer children in classrooms. All these will help quell, though not eliminate, the justified concerns that parents have about sending children back into school buildings.
5. Parents are eager to reassess schooling: Nearly two-thirds of parents say COVID-19 requires schools to rethink how students are educated-a constant since April.
While most parents don't plan to home school or send their child to a different school, 21 percent do, with 19 percent unsure. These opinions remained fairly stable across income, racial, and political groups, with geographic divisions proving one of the most significant divisions: Parents who live in a city are more likely (27 percent) than suburban parents who live near a city (19 percent) or small town and rural parents (17 percent) to be planning on home schooling or transferring schools.
These responses should catalyze health, education, and other K-12 stakeholders to question conventional assumptions and undertake new approaches to learning, instruction, and health care.
Legislators and health and education officials must listen to these parent views, exercising restraint and humility in their well-intentioned efforts to strike a grand agreement on when and how schools reopen. They must act in a way that communicates their commitment to safely, sensibly, and responsibly opening schools.
Bruno V. Manno is senior adviser for the Walton Family Foundation's K-12 education program.