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Reticent families in NYC, LA could prove true test for school reopenings, even as Gallup poll reveals overwhelming parent support nationwide

Asher Lehrer-Small | April 6, 2021

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(Christopher Evans / Getty Images)

Seventy-nine percent of parents support in-person learning for schools in their communities, according to a Gallup poll from mid-March.

But as Los Angeles Unified School District prepares to welcome students back to classrooms in April, and as New York City gives families another chance to enroll their children for in-person learning through April 7, parental decisions may prove the true test of school reopenings.

Currently, just over half of American students attend schools that offer five-days-a-week in-person learning, according to a March 22 update from the website Burbio, which tracks school calendars.

Many observers expect that figure to increase, however, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention removed a significant hurdle to reopening Friday. Their updated guidelines now stipulate 3 feet — not 6 — as a sufficient level of social distancing for classrooms practicing universal masking. Schools that had been operating at partial capacity due to spacing limitations will be able to fit more students into each classroom.

Already districts, including Indianapolis Public Schools in IndianaMarshall Public Schools in Michigan, and Mashpee Public Schools in Massachusetts, have announced plans to use the relaxed distancing protocols to bring students back to classrooms full time.

But in Los Angeles, where schools have remained shuttered since the pandemic struck, parental skepticism for in-person learning remains high. A district survey revealed that fewer than 30 percent of families intend to send their children back to school when buildings open their doors in April.

New York families, too, were largely hesitant to send their children back to classrooms when schools first reopened. The city gave parents one chance in November to select in-person instruction, and roughly 70 percent opted to keep their kids learning from home full time.

But as COVID-19 vaccines continue to roll out and cases have fallen from their mid-winter spike, many parents are eager to send their kids back to school. On March 13, parents rallied outside the Department of Education headquarters, demanding a full reopening of New York City schools.

The new, two-week opt-in period allowing families to select in-person learning will offer fresh insight into parental preferences in the nation’s largest school system.

In Los Angeles, the second-largest district, reticence to return to in-person school reflects a larger trend in public opinion identified in the Gallup polling data. While 79 percent of parents nationally favored school reopenings, including 90 percent in the Northeast, only 72 percent of those surveyed from the West responded favorably.

California, Oregon, and Washington all have among the lowest rates of in-person learning, with only 14, 17 and 29 percent of students respectively in those states attending schools that offer in-person learning options.

The Gallup poll did not break down results along racial lines, but previous surveys have found Black and Latino parents less willing to send their children back to classrooms. When the option was available, Black parents were 19 percentage points less likely than white parents and 11 percentage points less likely than Latino parents to select in-person learning, according to a December 2020 poll from Education Next, a journal published by Harvard. According to reports, a key missing ingredient for Black parents as they choose whether to send their children back to school during a pandemic has been trust.

Support for school reopenings also split along lines of parental employment, the Gallup poll showed. Working parents were 11 percentage points more likely to favor sending their kids back to classrooms than non-working parents.

Thirteen percent of working parents reduced their job hours, and 7 percent quit their jobs to help a child with remote learning, the poll revealed. Though Gallup did not publish the gender breakdown of those results, previous reporting has found that childcare obligations during the pandemic have taken a disproportionate toll on working mothers.

Financial stress during COVID-19 has also forced many teens to take jobs themselves. Some clock into work — and simultaneously attend class via Zoom.

The Gallup poll, which was conducted online in late February and surveyed 860 adults with children ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade, provided a more optimistic picture of parents’ views on school reopenings than previous reports. A FiveThirtyEight review of two recent surveys found 53 and 57 percent support for school reopenings. And polling from YouGov and HuffPost found only 27 percent of respondents in favor of a complete reopening, with another 29 percent in support of hybrid models that combine in-person and remote learning.

Both surveys were conducted in January, when coronavirus case rates were near their mid-winter peak and vaccinations were just becoming available, which could help explain the lower rates of support for school reopenings. But the emergence of new, more infectious COVID-19 variants has also been a cause for worry.

In March, health experts told The 74 that schools operating in-person should be prepared to “pivot quickly” as a more transmissible strain, first identified in Britain, doubles its total cases in the U.S. every 10 days.

In Los Angeles, the reopening developments come after the teachers union voted 89 percent in favor of return after reaching an agreement on safety protocols and hybrid instruction. Nationally, however, teachers unions continue to be some of the greatest skeptics of — and barriers to — in-person learning.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, both pushed back on the CDC’s announcement relaxing distancing protocols in classrooms.

“[W]e are not convinced that the evidence supports changing physical distancing requirements at this time,” Weingarten wrote in a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Tuesday.

A collection of 130 studies, however, reveal that the difference in COVID-19 transmission is minimal in classrooms with 3 versus 6 feet of physical distancing, as long as other safety protocols, like masking, are strictly enforced.

This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter here.

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