June 11, 2020 -- As school officials decide whether they can reopen their doors in the fall, a major challenge will be to reassure teachers and parents that classrooms are safe and that online learning remains an option for vulnerable people.
Nearly 2 in 3 educators (65% of 1,907 total) polled by EdWeek’s Research Center in late May say they would prefer that schools remain closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The remaining 35% of teachers, principals, and district leaders say the U.S. should open up schools and get the country going again, even if that means more people would get the coronavirus.
High school teachers and principals are more supportive of reopening schools than educators working with younger students. Teachers and administrators that favored reopening also were healthier than educators who wanted to keep schools closed.
Nearly 2 of every 3 educators are concerned about the health implications of resuming in-person instruction. “I am concerned about my health, but I am more concerned about older workers, including my 71-year-old mother, who is a receiving clerk at one of our schools. We know you can be asymptomatic and pass on the virus,” says Amy Bowser, who teaches gifted children at two elementary schools in Humboldt Unified School District in northern Arizona.
Thirty-six percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders say they have a physical condition that puts them at greater risk of adverse effects of the coronavirus. An even higher percentage, 69%, report that a close loved one they see often has such a condition, according to the EdWeek survey. They were also the most likely to say they would leave the profession, if necessary.
Julie, an elementary school computer science teacher who asked to be identified by her first name only, says her husband is 57 and has an upper respiratory disease. If he contracted COVID-19, he might not survive, she told EdWeek.
In addition, 7% of respondents are age 65 or older, which the CDC says raises the risk of severe illness.
And 12% of teachers say the pandemic may lead them to leave the profession, even though they were not planning to do so before it happened.
“I am very nervous that the decision-makers -- whether it’s the governor, superintendent, or county executives -- may decide to reopen the schools before it’s safe for my health. I am in my 50s, and staff who are my age and older worry about our health because we’re hardest hit with the virus,” says Susan Jacobs Churchill, a paraeducator who supports reading and math teachers at Judith A. Resnik Elementary School in Gaithersburg, MD, a suburb of Washington, D.C.
Churchill, whose husband is in his 60s, says if her worst fear is realized, she would consider taking a leave of absence, if that’s an option, before quitting her job. She hopes schools will consider keeping online instruction options for some teachers and students who’d rather not return full-time to the classroom. Educators are also concerned that their schools won’t use the precautions the CDC recommends, including physical distancing (remaining 6 feet from others), sanitation, and mask wearing.
Twenty-four percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders say they’ll leave their jobs if schools reopen without these kinds of measures in place, which would contribute to teacher shortages. Educators with health conditions took this position more than their peers without such conditions (32% vs. 19%), according to the EdWeek survey.
But some teachers question whether younger children will be able to maintain social distancing. “I taught first grade for 10 years. Social distancing will be a huge challenge, especially for the primary ages -- they are hands-on with everything,” says Bowser.
And 35% of educators surveyed say social distancing measures will make it very difficult to have all students in school at the same time, meaning they’d need to use “extreme approaches” such as double or staggered sessions to pull it off.
Language teachers are concerned that wearing masks in the classroom would hinder their students’ ability to learn. “English is not my native language, and when I was learning it, I counted on watching my teacher’s face and mouth to really understand the words,” says Leila Kubesch, who teaches English to seventh and eighth graders and accelerated Spanish to eighth graders at Norwood Middle School in Cincinnati, OH.
A work-around may be to wear a mask or face shield that is clear plastic. Kubesch says the school would have to provide the masks for students and suggested that parents be educated about the need to wear them.
More than half of Americans surveyed by USA Today/Ipsos support a range of proposals for returning to in-person learning next fall. Nearly two-thirds said they think it is likely that schools will reopen in the fall, yet less than half support returning to school before there is a coronavirus vaccine. A vaccine is not expected until next year.
Researchers interviewed 2,008 adults ages 18 and older from the U.S., including 403 parents with at least one child in kindergarten through high school.
If schools reopen in the fall, more than half of parents with a school-aged child said they are very or somewhat likely to switch to at-home learning. Two-thirds or more of parents would be likely to ask their child to wear a mask at school and say their child would likely have difficulty complying with social distancing at school, according to the survey report.
“My son, who will be attending eighth grade next year, is having nightmares about returning to school and not being safe. I promised him if we do not feel it’s a safe place, we will ask permission to do home schooling,” says Churchill, who notes her son is thriving with virtual learning.
Another parent of two teenage daughters says her older daughter is concerned about returning to high school in the fall, in part because her younger sister is chronically ill. “If she catches any virus, it could make her very ill, destabilizing her health far enough to hospitalize her. Even if she is home-schooled, my older daughter worries about bringing the coronavirus and other illnesses home with her,” says Rhonda Blandford, a retired nurse and communications chairwoman of Kentucky's 15th District Parent Teacher Association in Louisville.
“She also worries about the crowded halls that never give students enough time to get to class nor her locker,” says Blandford.
Although some parents will drive their children to school, not all have a car, and many children attending Jefferson County Public Schools get to school on public buses, says Blandford.
The CDC suggests that physical distancing be maintained on buses, with one child per seat, and that every other seat be empty. “It’s a problem because our buses are overcrowded, averaging 3 children per seat, and often children have to stand. To truly social distance would require having triple the number of buses we have now, which we can’t afford,” says Blandford.
Parents are also wondering who will be responsible for health screenings the CDC recommends. “Our school only has two full-time administrative staff: our principal and an office secretary. Will they be responsible for taking the temperature of children when they arrive at school?” says Andrea Jensen Wader, a parent and president of the Fremont Elementary School PTA in Long Beach, CA.
Wader also worries about sending her 9-year-old daughter back to school. “I have been immunocompromised for the past 4 years. Since March, I have not left the house much, and my doctors have advised that I stay at home as much as possible. While I am concerned that my daughter could bring the coronavirus home, I do not want her life to stop because of me, so we try to stay as safe as possible.”
Parents will have to decide whether they are willing to accept a certain amount of risk in the classroom with COVID-19, says Wader. “There’s a certain percentage of risk anytime you send your child to school and put kids together -- there’s the flu, lice, and other risks -- children are like little petri dishes.”