One year after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered classrooms around the country and the world, U.S. parents are guardedly optimistic about the academic and social development of their children, an NPR/Ipsos poll finds.
But 62% of parents say their child's education has been disrupted. And more than 4 out of 5 would like to see schools provide targeted extra services to help their kids catch up. This includes just over half of parents who support the idea of summer school.
The nation has lacked solid national data on precisely where classrooms are open to students. In our survey, half of parents said their children were learning virtually, a third were attending in person full time, and the remainder were in person part time. As other polls have found, Black and Hispanic parents were far more likely than white parents to say their children were all remote — 65% for Black parents, 57% for Hispanic parents and 38% for white parents.
In a sign of the disruptions that have become routine this school year, 43% of parents said that they had switched among virtual, in-person or hybrid since the previous fall.
It has been "a bit of a journey, to put it mildly," said Nick Ehrenberg, a father of two in Minneapolis who was one of the parents polled. School for his children has shifted back and forth between virtual, hybrid, and virtual again due to closures and quarantine. It has been full time, in person for just the past few weeks.
My kid is doing fine, but we want help
However their children were attending school, 48% of parents agreed that "I am worried that my child will be behind when the pandemic is over." (In this question, as with others in the poll, there were not significant differences in the responses by race or ethnicity).
Yet when asked to pinpoint their areas of concern, robust majorities of parents actually judged their kids to be on track, or even ahead of schedule: in math and science, reading and writing, mental health and emotional well-being, and socialization and communication skills.
Considering their relatively positive outlook on children's development across these areas, it may not be surprising that parents give high marks overall to their kids' schools — 79% said "My child's school has handled the pandemic well," and 82% said their schools had clearly communicated during the year.
When it came to specific concerns, slightly more parents were concerned about socialization and communication skills (22%) vs. academic skills (17% worried about reading and writing and 19% about math).
Susan Hom has a teenage son who is attending school online and lives in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where he socializes with a neighbor outside and with friends online over video games. She says she's concerned about the "lack of peer social interaction and also, peer learning. I think they could learn a lot from their peers if they're in the same classroom together."
The biggest area of concern among those NPR/Ipsos asked about was "time management," and even there, just 1 in 4 parents say kids are behind.
"There was some procrastination at times going on, where some things just didn't get done right away, and we had to kind of catch up," said Nick Ehrenberg in Minneapolis. He said his second-grader and kindergartner were learning from home, with himself usually supervising while also working from home.
Still, he said he was not too concerned about his children's progress. "I consider myself privileged and lucky for that."
Full time, in person — or remote indefinitely
Looking ahead, precisely three-quarters of parents polled expect their children's schools to open full time in person next fall. And about half of those whose children now attend hybrid or remotely expect those schools to open full time in person as soon as teachers are fully vaccinated. President Biden has talked frequently about teacher vaccination and recently directed all states to prioritize educators for the shots this month.
However, full-time learning might prove a difficult milestone to reach unless Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are altered, cases plummet, or schools receive a large infusion of money. Current CDC guidelines recommend 6 feet of distance between students, which is only possible with hybrid scheduling, given the size of most classrooms today.
On the other hand, fully 29% of parents told us they were likely to stick with remote learning indefinitely. That included about half of the parents who are currently enrolled in remote learning.
Perhaps in response to this interest, many schools, states and districts are looking at continuing to offer a remote public school option, districtwide or even statewide to make it more efficient. School districts as diverse as West Contra Costa Unified and Riverside in California, suburban St. Louis and Lincoln, Neb., all say they're offering districtwide virtual schools next year. A Rand Corp. survey found that about 1 in 5 districts are considering it. This could end up being the most significant change in education to extend beyond the pandemic.
America Velez, a mother of five in St. Cloud, Fla., says a virtual school is her preferred option for her daughter. "It's a charter school within Florida, they pretty much stick to the state guidelines. So their teachers, again, have been phenomenal," she said. "But then again, it's been a program that's been around for many years. So very different than ... something that pretty much was thrown together because of COVID."
Personalize my learning, and maybe summer school?
We asked parents about some of the various recovery ideas that education leaders have proposed as a way of addressing the disrupted learning, as well as the emotional hardships of the pandemic itself. Most were fans.
Around 4 in 5 expected their own children would benefit from each of the following: "individualized, detailed assessment," "social and emotional wellness programs," "one-on-one tutoring" and "better software-based practice programs." Across the board, Black and Hispanic parents saw even more potential benefits from these interventions.
"It would be nice if the school would offer some after-school tutoring ... but we may not get informed about it because their grades are fine," said Travis Hall, father to a 10-year-old and 13-year-old in Brownstown, Mich.
And more than 4 in 5 parents support additional help for students in special education.
Kevin LaJuan Godley in San Antonio, Texas, has a 16-year-old daughter with some special needs. Though he says that remote learning has helped her stay focused in school, she has less consistent access to an aide. "Out of class, when she's learning from home, sometimes she gets it, sometimes she doesn't. She doesn't get [support] when she needs it."
Extra learning time was the least popular option presented. When we asked if their children would benefit from "additional school days or extended-day programs," 43% said they expected a "large" or "moderate" benefit.
Just over half said they were in support of summer school as a policy. Travis Hall said he'd support some kind of summer program, but he'd prefer it be an enrichment program, such as building a robot or writing a graphic novel. "Just something else that was more entertaining than just, 'here's the book we're going to study.' When it's 75 degrees and sunny outside, that's not going to work."
NOEL KING, HOST:
We are a year into the pandemic, a year of school closures. But an NPR/Ipsos poll of parents in the U.S. finds some optimism about academic and social development. More than 4 out of 5 parents would like extra services to help their kids catch up. Just over half are in favor of summer school.
Anya Kamenetz from NPR's education team helped design this poll. Good morning, Anya.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: What were you polling to find out?
KAMENETZ: We felt like the way that the school reopening debate has sometimes been covered, we're generally hearing only the loudest, most disgruntled voices, or else we're trying to focus on the families who are really vulnerable and being left out. So we wanted to get a more representative national view on how parents are feeling about this school year and also what they'd like to see happen next.
KING: OK. And what'd you find?
KAMENETZ: So obviously, this has not been a seamless school year for most people. Many schools have opened for in-person learning, gone from virtual to hybrid, closed, gone back again. Almost half of parents told us they were, quote, "worried that my child will be behind when the pandemic is over."
KING: When they say falling behind, what do they mean?
KAMENETZ: Well, this was puzzling because when we tried to drill down, large majorities of parents actually judge their kids to be on track or even ahead of schedule in math and science, in reading and writing, in mental health, emotional well-being - even the socialization and communication skills and time management.
KING: OK. So it sounds like they're worried their kids are behind, but they can't actually really say how.
KAMENETZ: Exactly. And also - yeah. And also, parents are giving pretty high marks to their kids' schools. Four out of 5 said, my child's school has handled the pandemic well. And about the same number said their schools had clearly communicated during the year. And that's kind of different from how, you know, sometimes the conflicts over school reopening had been portrayed.
KING: Yeah, 4 out of 5 is telling. What are parents thinking about next school year?
KAMENETZ: You know, most parents expect things to go back to quote-unquote, "normal." Exactly 3 out of 4 of the parents we polled expect their children's schools to open full time in person next fall. And even sooner than that, about half of those attending hybrid and/or remote right now expect schools to open full time in person just as soon as the teachers are all vaccinated. And, you know, President Biden just put a move on that. He recently directed all states to prioritize educators for their shots as soon as this month.
However, when you think about, you know, schools opening five days a week in person, teachers getting vaccinated is not the only concern. Currently, CDC guidelines recommend 6 feet of distance between students, and most schools have only been able to achieve that by having a hybrid or part-time schedule.
KING: So full time still might not happen in the fall in some schools.
KAMENETZ: I mean, that is a big story that we're going to continue to cover. But, you know, we should also point out that there are kids who are thriving with online learning. So Joshua Jessep in Discovery Bay in Northern California told us...
JOSHUA JESSEP: My son actually sits with me here in my office as I work. You can see he's busy over there. And so I'm able to keep a really close track of, you know, daily assignments, make sure he's not goofing off.
KAMENETZ: So with his son as his co-worker, his grades are now straight A's. And, overall, fully 29% of parents said they were either somewhat or very likely to choose remote learning indefinitely.
KING: My eyes just fell out of my head. Almost one-third of parents say we'd like to keep our kids learning at home? That would be massive.
KAMENETZ: Yeah. And many districts are already setting up district-wide virtual learning programs. This is a change that could have ripples far beyond the pandemic.
KING: President Biden's American Rescue Plan has set aside some funds to address learning loss. Did you ask parents what they're looking for in there?
KAMENETZ: Yes, and all of these recovery proposals are very popular. More than 4 in 5 parents want some kind of customized service to help their kids with those catch-up worries that they have.
KING: NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz.
KAMENETZ: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.