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Parents Backing Trump, Biden Diverge on Back-to-School COVID-19 Issues

By Christina A. Samuels — September 22, 2020 5 min read
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The political divide separating Trump and Biden voters extends to where—and how—their children are attending school for the 2020-21 school year, according to a nationally representative survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center.

Supporters of Democratic candidate Joe Biden were far more likely than respondents overall to say their children will be engaged in full-time remote learning, compared to respondents who plan to vote for President Donald Trump. About 48 percent of Biden voters say their children are learning remotely, compared to around a quarter of Trump voters and more than a third of respondents overall.

In contrast, while roughly a quarter of Trump voters said their children were attending school full-time and in-person, that’s far more than the 12 percent of Biden voters who said their children were doing the same. Overall, about 18 percent of respondents said their children were attending school full-time and in-person.

Overall, about 23 percent of respondents said their children were attending a “hybrid” public option of part-time, in-person and part-time, remote public school. On that option, Trump and Biden supporters did not vary meaningfully.

The online parent survey was administered to more than 2,000 parents of K-12 public and private school students Aug. 17-24. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percent.

In general, Trump supporters also expressed much more trust that schools could safeguard their children’s health. And Biden supporters were more likely than overall respondents to say certain safety measures affected their trust level, such as large group gatherings, inadequate or adequate social distancing, testing students and staff for the coronavirus, quality of ventilation, and mask requirements. Trump supporters were less likely than overall respondents to say those factors affected the level of trust they had in their child’s school.

Two parents offer almost perfect encapsulations of these views.

‘It’s All Right’

Kathryn Dormedy, a San Antonio mother of seven and a Trump supporter, has been more than ready to have her school-age children return to full-time, in-person school.

Three of her children—a high school senior, a freshman, and a 5th grader—attend Alamo Heights ISD schools; three others are in private school, and the youngest is 13 months old. After a remote start for all students, Alamo Heights phased in a return to full-time classes by grade level, and is now offering in-person as well as remote instruction.

With distance learning, Dormedy’s children “did not seem to understand that even though they weren’t in school, they still had to do school,” she said. Plus, it was difficult to find a place for everyone to work quietly and listen to their teachers.

“And also, with having my kids the ages that they are—middle school and high school—I wanted them to at least have some semblance of a school experiences. It was better to go back.”

Dormedy said she feels comfortable with the district’s plans for social distancing and mask wearing, which are required for students in 4th grade and higher.

“I just sort of trusted that the school was going to do what they needed to do,” Dormedy said. “To be honest, I’m one of those who’s not that concerned. All of the findings show that children especially, even if they contract the coronavirus, they’re not going to be terribly affected. They’ll be OK, they have their masks, they eat their lunch in their room. It’s all right.”

‘Still Too Dangerous’

Shirley Armstrong is raising seven grandchildren in Riverdale, Ill., a suburb on the south side of Chicago. Dolton West District 148, her local district, is offering only remote learning to its students for the entire fall semester. Armstrong said she’s glad that the children, who range in age from kindergarten through 8th grade, are staying home.

“I feel it’s still too dangerous,” said Armstrong, who is supporting Biden for president. “I’m really not comfortable with it, and they haven’t found any evidence that they’re going to have a cure anytime soon. I’m not going to lose any of my children to this.”

Plus, with elderly adults in the household, in-person school would present risks to them as well, she said.

“I’m well pleased with the way [the district] is handling it, because now it’s so much more structured” compared to the spring, Armstrong said. “The children have their headsets on, they’re focused on the screens and doing their work—they even raise their hands to go to the bathroom.

“We were told, you do not have to stand over your children. We want them to act like they’re in school,” she said.

In-Person Classes More Likely in Areas of Strong Trump Support

Jon Valant, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution studying K-12 education policy and politics, used Education Week data to show that districts offering in-person school were more likely to be located in areas of strong Trump support. That was true regardless of the level of coronavirus spread in those communities, he found.

So some of the political differences could be driven by the different communities in which Trump and Biden supporters tend to live. Armstrong’s neighborhood of Riverdale voted 99 percent for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign. In-person learning, for now, is not an option there or in neighboring districts such as Chicago Public School, even if families may want that.

Bexar County in Texas, where Alamo Heights is located, also supported Clinton in the 2016 election, 53.7 percent compared to 40.3 percent for Trump. However, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has ordered that all school districts in the state must offer full-time or part-time instruction unless they’ve been granted a waiver. (Districts in Texas have the option of starting the first eight weeks of the school year remotely.)

The politics make it difficult to find clearsighted and science-based solutions in what is probably the most complex problem that public education has faced in generations, Valant said in an interview.

“When you look at the school reopening decision there is no risk-free alternative, but the risks are felt by different groups of people.” Valant said.

“If you’re opening in person, you may be doing what’s best for kids’ learning in the short term,” but that presents a potential risk to school staff, families, and the community at large, he said. “Whereas if you go in the other direction, you’re sticking those risks on kids’ educational outcomes, but protecting lots of other people.

“Those are two terrible options that we’re facing here,” Valant said. “People are falling on different sides of those questions, which is something we’re going to be dealing with for a long time.”

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