When the pandemic sent children home from school nearly one year ago, it largely thrust education on the backs of parents as educators adjusted to a new reality.
A new national survey from Public Agenda finds that only about a third of parents think they can handle the challenge of educating their children. But it also finds that teachers and parents are in broad agreement that in-person teaching during COVID is dangerous.
Ashley McCollum lives in Chicago Heights, Illinois. She had to quit her job as a home health aide to stay home with her 5-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter when COVID-19 hit full force last year.
“We had to leave from where we were staying to move in with a family member because, you know, me not working I couldn't pay rent,” McCollum, 35, says.
Adjusting to homeschooling wasn’t easy, and McCollum had to learn to be a teacher.
“When they stopped school, they didn’t let us know where they left off teaching the kids anything. So when [my son] started kindergarten, he was lost.”
This week McCollum got an email from her daughter’s school, announcing that she could return to an in-person hybrid schedule in March. But McCollum says she was disappointed with the lack of information about safety procedures from the school.
“I'm not gonna let them go back,” McCollum says.
The new national survey from Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research and public engagement organization, shows that a majority of teachers and parents across the country are reluctant to jump back into in-person schooling.
“There's really a lot of agreement between teachers and parents on really most of the things that we asked about,” says David Schleifer, Public Agenda’s director of research.
In-person school is far better for most students — both for their education and social development. But the survey found teachers and parents are equally divided on whether it’s worth the risk.
“Both teachers and parents are really struggling with what is right,” Schleifer says. “It’s not like parents and teachers are lined up on opposite sides of this issue.”
New research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found COVID-19 spread in schools is minimal if precautions are taken — like mask-wearing, small class sizes and physical distancing.
Mom Lindsey Stroot in southern Illinois is ready. “I was hoping to get them back as soon as possible,” the 38-year-old says.
Her kids now attend shortened school days on weekdays, but she’s ready for them to return full-time. Stroot’s husband was able to work from home some days, and her in-laws assisted but Stroot couldn’t stay home for work during the pandemic.
“Especially knowing that it seems like this doesn't really affect children as much,” Stroot says. “I mean, all kinds of things were put in place at the school. I felt pretty comfortable sending them as long as your kids are not symptomatic.”
As of early January, 37 states have prioritized teachers in the vaccine rollout’s first phase, according to Johns Hopkins University. Getting teachers vaccinated and kids back in school will be a key step for the economy, so parents can return to work.
Andrew Simmons, a high school teacher in San Rafael, California, says that’s a good first step. “I think we would at least feel more comfortable that we weren’t jeopardizing our own health."
But Simmons is skeptical the hybrid model — half in school, half remote — will undo months of social isolation or educational inequities that have been magnified by the pandemic.
High school English and history teacher Andres Perez agrees. “Teachers and parents have every right to feel upset about the state of their students' schooling — that is valid."
Perez’s community in southern San Diego county has been hit hard by the pandemic. This largely Latinx neighborhood has seen high rates of infection, which can be attributed to a concentration of essential workers and multi-family households.
He says schools should be assisting families in ways outside of education — like mental health.
“We also need to, of course, most importantly, listen to our families and our students about what they need,” Perez says.
Prior to the pandemic, teachers around the country striked for better working conditions and pay. Many educators said they felt undervalued, and teachers were leaving the profession at alarming rates.
But the pandemic may usher a new appreciation for teachers. The Public Agenda survey found that most teachers and parents think communities value teachers more now than they did before the pandemic.
These are findings from a nationally representative survey of 3,130 adult Americans 18 years and older conducted by Public Agenda. The survey was fielded November 18 to December 1, 2020 in English and Spanish, by telephone and online.
This story was produced by America Amplified, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. America Amplified is using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. It was developed in partnership with Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.