School Climate & Safety

What Do Parents Think of COVID 19-Era Learning Now?

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 29, 2020 4 min read
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As the nation’s fragmented response to the pandemic continues affecting the K-12 system, a handful of new surveys are starting to give a more in-focus picture of what parents think of the brave new world of schooling we find ourselves in.

First up is a Pew Research Center survey of more than 2,500 U.S. parents of children under 18 that is weighted to reflect the gender, race, ethnicity, and education of the country. Conducted mid-October, it’s probably the broadest and most recent look at where we collectively are on schooling. Let’s get right into the findings.

Parents seem happiest with in-person instruction.

This is probably not much of a surprise; parents’ anecdotal complaints with the limited hours, tech glitches, and lackluster curriculum of online-only learning have been flooding opinion pages (and local schools listservs) for weeks. In-person learning, meanwhile, is also the format parents are most familiar with, which is another thing to keep in mind as you interpret these results.

Ninety percent of parents whose children said they were getting in-person instruction said they were “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied,” while only about three-quarters said the same about online or hybrid teaching, and a far smaller share—30 percent or fewer—said they were very satisfied.

Of course, data like these can hide the actual experiences of students, both bad and good. A New York Times op-ed that ran this week, for example, noted that some Black students had found refuge from the systemic racism in their schools in their home learning environments.

Generally, parents are satisfied with districts’ safety measures.

Here’s some good news for districts: 86 percent of parents whose studnets were getting at least some in-person instruction. said they were “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with the steps the school is taking to prevent COVID transmission. On a separate question, though, 62 percent of parents also agreed they were “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” with safety. This is an important thing to keep in mind as more districts mull over whether to return to some in-person learning. Parents may be worried, but districts can convince them to consider in-person learning, the survey results seem to show.

What’s particularly challenging as the nation enters a third peak in infection rates is that, because there is no federal data collection focused on COVID-19 transmission rates in schools, researchers are engaged in an ongoing and rather heated debate about how to interpret the limited epidemiological data we do have to make good school reopening decisions, as journalist Rachel Cohen wrote in this American Prospect story. And all of that uncertainty is floating down to the 14,000 school districts and their officials, who are not (and shouldn’t have to be) communicable disease experts.

Lower-income students are getting more online-only instruction, and their parents are worried.

The survey found that a plurality of parents—46 percent—said their children got online-only instruction. But while only 4 in 10 upper-income parents reported an online-only environment, more than 5 in 10 lower-income families had online-only teaching.

And those low-income parents are also the ones most concerned about their kids falling behind, at 72 percent, compared to just 55 percent of upper-income parents.

One of the frustrating elements of COVID-19 is that with only a few exceptions, most of the learning-loss data we have are based on studies from other countries, or are estimates, rather than being rooted in contemporary measures of student learning. The low-income parents surveyed also reported having fewer resources to supplement their children’s schooling, which partly explains their anxiety.

It’s also interesting to compare this data with some of the other data points we have on access to in-person schooling. The nonprofit news organzation Chalkbeat and AP in one analysis found that districts that had higher numbers of Black and Hispanic students were less likely to reopen in person. Since last spring, Education Week surveys of district personnel, including teachers, have consistently found that low-income and Black students are more likely to be in online-schooling. (This may partly reflect their preferences, becasue Black school personnel were also consistently likely to support full-time remote learning.)

More recent work has shown a troubling correlation—that white students are more likely to select in-person learning over remote, given the option.

There’s a lot to chew on in that survey—and there’s more in the second one.

The second survey on K-12 learning released this week comes from the Innovation Lab at the nonprofit Cognia (formerly AdvanceED, a K-12 accreditation body which merged with testing group Measured Progress in 2018). This survey is a convenience sample rather than nationally representative, which means you must use caution in interpreting it. It collected responses from teachers and students as well as parents.

One of the most interesting findings here concerns students’ routines. Students in this survey generally reported feeling isolated, particularly younger students; and more than a third of the parents said that students’ learning routines were “different each day.” (Education Week reporting, including our recent look at principals, has found that regular routines are really important to making students feel safe and well-cared for during these unnerving times.)

Find the whole set of Cognia data here.

The Pew survey has an errorr margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points, though this figure is slightly higher for the sub-population of parents, like those of preschool-age children.

Photo: Paul Hendricks, 10, received some guidance from his mother Anne, as he worked his first day of 5th grade from his bedroom in St. Paul, Minn. last month.—Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.