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How the Flood of Polling About Schools Affects Their Reopening Decisions

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 14, 2020 6 min read
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It seems like everywhere you look, there’s a new poll about the coronavirus and schools. With schools at the heart of efforts to reopening the economy and society during a pandemic, it’s natural that a host of public opinion polls have focused on them.

But with an unprecedented focus on schools over the summer, it’s also worth exploring the polls’ impact— and the limits of that impact.

Some of the many national polls about K-12 and the coronavirus in recent weeks include those from ABC News and Ipsos, the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs, Gallup, Pew Research Center, and the Washington Post and the Schar School. Separately, there are also regular polls by Education Week (you thought we’d forget?) and other organizations that have focused on K-12 educators.

It’s difficult to draw sweeping conclusions from all those and other polls, given their different questions and other factors. But here are a few common themes or notable findings.

  • Large shares, if not the majority of respondents, have been wary of or opposed to schools simply resuming regular in-person classes.
  • Democrats have expressed more hesitancy about face-to-face classes than Republicans.
  • Those who are less wealthy are less confident that it’s safe to send their kids to school than their wealthier counterparts.
  • People of color have been less likely to think it’s safe for kids to physically return to school buildings than white people.

Stephanie Marken, the executive director of education research for Gallup, told us that parents’ concerns about education were prominent in polls about the pandemic in the last few months that weren’t focused specifically on schools, because schools have “such a significant impact on parental well-being.”

“They had these challenges associated with: How do they provide child care? How do they provide necessary education with their children who may be struggling with independent learning?” Marken said.

Marken also pointed out that polls have consistently shown a broad concern about students falling behind academically as they head into a new school year.

She added that, especially in the spring but also in the summer, Gallup has seen a significantly higher response rate that has helped pollsters with their work.

Complex, Parochial Systems

So what are the limits of those kind of national surveys? And why do they sometimes seem so out-of-sync with what’s happening in your local school district?

Daniel Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said superintendents are “not going to be looking at the national trends or the state trends” in making decisions about reopening Instead, he said, school leaders in the country’s roughly 13,600 districts are looking at local infection rates, what district parents and teachers are saying publicly, and similar factors.

“They’re less concerned about those polls and more concerned about what’s happening in their community,” Domenech said.

Education leaders don’t necessarily use all the same factors in their decisions about how to reopen schools. Despite guidance from the federal government that schools in virus “hot spots” may need to delay reopening their buildings, not all states and districts are following that advice. And there’s early evidence suggesting that some districts’ decisions are linked to how their counties voted in the 2016 presidential election.

What such nationwide polls cannot capture is that “U.S. schools are highly fragmented, complex systems that are very parochial,” said David DeSchryver, a vice president at the research and consulting firm Whiteboard Advisors who oversees polling of school officials. It’s not like asking voters or the general public for their opinion about a new health care bill in Congress, or who they plan to vote for in the presidential election.

“What’s applicable in New York City is not applicable in Rochester, New York,” DeSchryver said.

That’s not to say national polling isn’t useful for local education leaders in a broader context. It has affected how lawmakers and lobbyists talk about how much aid Congress should provide to schools, how it should be allocated, and different aspects of schools and education that need more resources to address inequities during the pandemic.

Domenech, for example, said his group has emphasized survey results about disadvantaged families and internet access when talking with Washington leaders. “When we’re advocating at the national level, they’re very useful,” he said. Of course, it’s hard to gauge the true impact of such lobbying when Congress and the Trump administration are at a standstill in virus aid negotiations.

While Marken stressed that she doesn’t “think a national poll should ever presume to tell a district what it should be doing,” she also said nationwide polls can highlight issues that aren’t strictly local and make addressing them more urgent. “There’s going to be a lot of learning lost over the summer. I don’t think that’s going to change from district to district,” she said.

The survey numbers can also serve as a backdrop to debates about issues like ad hoc learning “pods” organized by parents.

Picking Out What They Want to Hear

There’s also been some polling that targets particular states or regions.

A Marquette University Law School Poll released on Tuesday, for example, asked Wisconsin residents, “Would you feel comfortable or uncomfortable letting students return to school in the fall?” The pollsters broke down the results by region for Milwaukee, the metro area outside Milwaukee, Madison, and elsewhere.

In Milwaukee, where the school board voted in July to start the year with remote learning, 27 percent of respondents said they were comfortable with the idea, while 68 percent of respondents said they were uncomfortable with the idea. (Here’s some state-level polling from Arizona, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus recently.)

National survey results, of course, are also useful for—or perhaps vulnerable to—advocates and political leaders who want to point out that public opinion backs up their decisions or preferences. On Wednesday, during an event hosted by President Donald Trump that focused on the benefits of reopening school buildings, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway cited the Kaiser Family Foundation poll’s finding that 65 percent of parents are concerned about their children falling behind academically.

“When information is noisy, people are going to pick out information that they want to hear,” DeSchryver said.

Marken is hoping that the steady flow of polling results doesn’t dry up in the fall. She said she’s interested to see what the Gallup Student Poll turns up about students’ experiences in the fall, as well as how teachers are handling education technology issues and teachers’ well-being. Such information is important at a a time when children and educators are under so much strain, and school leaders are looking for answers within their districts and elsewhere, Marken said.

“This isn’t a time to stop asking questions,” she said. “We have to have a pulse on the things people are concerned with. Otherwise, the focus can be wrong when we’re introducing solutions.”

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