About half of parents plan to vaccinate their children against COVID-19, while a similar percentage supports mask mandates in schools. And despite the upheaval and uncertainty that the coronavirus pandemic delivered to the American education system, public evaluation of local schools has held mostly steady.
These are the key findings from the Education Next survey of public opinion on education policy, an annual poll released by the journal, which is published by the Education Next Institute and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School.
The survey also found a drop in public support for education policy reform proposals across the board—regardless of whether the policies in question were backed by those on the right or those on the left. For example, support for free public college dropped from 2019 to 2021, but so did support for school vouchers.
“The public seems tired of disruption, change, and uncertainty,” the report’s authors write.
While the coronavirus has put tremendous strain on schools, it has also prompted many state officials, school leaders, and teachers to reflect on what policy changes, born out of pandemic necessity, might make education more equitable and accessible for all students going forward.
But these poll results suggest that the public may be looking for a return to normalcy, said Martin West, the academic dean and a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and editor-in-chief of Education Next.
“While the pandemic has created space for innovation, it is not clear that it has created broad demand for change. And so those who see this as an opportunity to rethink education policy or practice will still need to convince the public that that’s the right way forward,” he said.
The results also showed a deep partisan divide on many questions.
Parents are divided on vaccination, masking
Education Next surveyed two overlapping groups: A nationally representative sample of 1,410 adults in the United States, and a nationally representative sample of 2,155 parents with at least one child in a K-12 school. The survey was conducted in May and June 2021.
Just about half of the parents surveyed, 51 percent, said they would “probably” or “definitely” vaccinate their child. About a third, 34 percent, said they probably or definitely would not. Fifteen percent are undecided.
These rates varied across party lines. Among Republican parents, 35 percent said they would have their child vaccinated, compared with 66 percent of parents who are Democrats.
Children’s ages also played a factor. Forty-six percent of parents of younger elementary students said they would vaccinate their kids, compared with 52 percent of parents of middle schoolers and 59 percent of parents of high schoolers. Vaccines are currently unavailable to children under 12.
When it comes to other COVID safety precautions, parents are similarly split. Again, about half of parents, 47 percent, support mask mandates in schools. Thirty-five percent oppose them. And again, these opinions break down by political affiliation. Only about 1 in 5 Republicans want schools to require masks, while 64 percent of Democrats do.
Opinion on mask-wearing also differs by race. Ask Black adults, and 69 percent say they approve of mask mandates. The proportion is lower for Hispanic adults—59 percent—and lowest for white adults at only 33 percent.
“Absent a mandate that all children be vaccinated in order to come to school, it seems almost certain that we will have a substantial share of students in public schools remain unvaccinated, and that certainly increases the likelihood that mitigation measures will remain in place longer than would otherwise be the case,” West said.
“But remember that the groups in the public who are most hesitant about vaccines are also least enthusiastic about masking and other mitigation measures,” he added. “It’s not obvious how that plays out.”
Opinion of schools remains favorable
The past year has brought many anecdotal reports of parents pulling their children out of traditional public schools in favor of private schools that offer more opportunity for in-person learning. Still, the Education Next poll found that the proportion of students attending traditional public schools has returned to spring 2020 levels, after taking a dip earlier during the pandemic.
The poll did find, though, that more private school students were attending classes in person at the end of the 2020-21 academic year: 79 percent of private school students were attending in person by the end of the school year, compared with 50 percent of students from traditional public schools, and 36 percent of charter school students.
Most parents reported that they were happy with the instruction and services that their schools were able to provide during the pandemic. But some parents were happier than others. Seventy-six percent of parents of traditional public school children said they were satisfied, compared with 81 percent of charter school parents, and 92 percent of private school parents.
These survey results can seem at odds with the vitriolic nature of school reopening discourse on social media and at school board meetings. But “the loudest voices are not always the most representative voices,” West said.
The public as a whole also evaluated the performance of schools highly. Fifty-five percent of adults gave their local schools an A or a B on an A-F scale, compared with 60 percent in 2019, and 51 percent in 2018.
Still, schools are not as well-regarded as other public institutions. Education Next found that more respondents gave As or Bs to their local police and their local post office—70 percent and 65 percent, respectively.
Perceptions of local schools vary by race, and also by political affiliation. Hispanic adults grade their local schools the highest, with 60 percent giving them an A or B grade, while Black adults grade them the lowest, with 46 percent giving these honor roll grades. Fifty-seven percent of white adults give local schools As or Bs. (Black adults also grade the police much lower than Hispanic and white adults, with 48 percent of Black respondents giving their local police an A or B grade.)
In a new trend, Democrats were more likely to grade their local schools highly than Republicans. The percentage of Republicans giving their local schools A or B grades dropped from 2019 to 2021, from 62 percent to 51 percent.
Respondents had a more split view of teachers’ unions: About a third each said they have a positive effect on schools, a negative effect on schools, or undecided. Only 35 percent said they thought that unions made it harder for their local schools to open, though 48 percent said they thought it made it harder for schools to open nationally.
“We … see a lot of people uncertain about whether the unions facilitated or hindered the efforts to reopen schools. Again, I think those of us in the education policy community may be tracking these topics much more closely than ordinary Americans,” West said.
Parents say children suffered academically, emotionally
At the end of the 2020-21 school year, many schools planned to open 5-days-a-week, in person this fall, deprioritizing remote learning. The rapid spread of the Delta variant, though, has called these plans into question, as some school districts have quarantined thousands of students due to infection or exposure and others have temporarily shut down in person operations.
But even before the start of the 2021-22 school year, most parents wanted a remote option. The Education Next poll found that 64 percent of parents wanted high school students to have the option of learning fully online, and 48 percent wanted this choice for elementary schoolers too. These numbers vary by race and political affiliation, with Black and Hispanic adults more likely to favor remote learning than white adults, and Democrats more likely to favor it than Republicans.
Most parents, 57 percent, think that their children learned less this past academic year than they would have in a “normal” year, without a pandemic. And they think that their kids suffered socially, too. About half said that this year had a negative impact on their children’s relationships. (These numbers are similar to the results from another Education Next poll of parent opinion, taken earlier in the 2020-21 school year.)
As this academic year begins, parents want schools to put more focus on emotional well-being—in part, the report’s authors speculate, because of the emotional stress of the past year. In 2019, parents wanted more focus on academics than social-emotional learning; now, they want an equal focus on both.