The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Most D.C. parents satisfied with schools during pandemic, Post poll finds

Parents still want more virtual options

Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee, left, and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), right, tour Shepherd Elementary School in Northwest Washington ahead of a planned reopening of schools in November 2020. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Nearly 8 in 10 public school parents in the nation’s capital approve of how their children’s schools handled education during the pandemic disruptions, though most say the city should still be offering more virtual learning options, a Washington Post poll finds.

Overall perceptions of the city’s schools have barely budged in the last three years. In all, 42 percent of residents — parents and non-parents — rate schools positively, while 39 percent rate them negatively. That’s similar to 2019, when 44 percent of residents held positive views of schools.

Parents with children in public schools have a more favorable opinion of them — 63 percent say they are “excellent” or “good.” Asked about their children’s own schools, 80 percent of public school parents rate them positively overall, with 78 percent giving their children’s schools positive marks for handling education during the coronavirus pandemic. Parents’ ratings have declined since 2019, when 92 percent rated their children’s schools positively.

Nearly half of D.C. residents, 48 percent, say Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is doing an excellent or good job improving public schools in the District, down from 59 percent who said the same in 2019, but similar to her standing in 2017 and 2015. Seven percent rate her handing of District schools as excellent.

The assessments arrive as Bowser seeks a third term in office and during a turbulent two years in education because of the pandemic. Bowser repeatedly tried and failed to reopen schools and get most children back in classrooms during the 2020-2021 academic year. Her plans were often met with public fights with the teachers union and protests from parents on both sides of the reopening debate. Early indicators show declines in students’ reading and math abilities and significant concerns about students’ mental health after being out of school buildings for such a long time.

D.C. students’ learning loss continued in 2020-2021, widening gaps for at-risk kids, report finds

But Bowser reopened schools full time for all students this academic year, requiring nearly all students to be back in classrooms in the fall. She largely kept schools open during the omicron wave despite massive quarantines, staffing shortages and pushback from some parents and teachers.

“It’s been a challenging three years, and if you put it all together she has done a good job,” said Anthony Givens, a small-business owner who lives in the Deanwood neighborhood of Northeast Washington and has a son who is a freshman at Dunbar High. He said his biggest complaint this academic year is that, because of coronavirus restrictions, he has not been able to go inside the school and meet the principal and teachers.

“I couldn’t imagine another mayor doing it differently,” he said.

The Post poll was conducted among a random sample of 904 D.C. residents on landlines and cellphones in February, asking them about their opinions on the upcoming mayoral race and their views on Bowser’s leadership on signature issues. The margin of error for overall results is plus or minus four points; the error margin is 10.5 points for results among 144 public and charter school parents. Overall, a 58 percent majority of residents approve of Bowser’s general job performance — down from 67 percent in Post polls conducted in 2019 and 2017.

In a time of rising crime rates and increased housing prices, just 4 percent of residents say education and improving schools is the biggest issue in the District, significantly down from the 25 percent of residents who ranked education as the top city problem in a poll conducted in 2011, and from 8 percent in 2019. By comparison, 36 percent of residents say crime and violence is the District’s greatest problem in the latest poll, and 14 percent identify housing as the top issue.

The 42 percent positive rating for public schools, while similar to 2019′s number, marks an improvement in how D.C. residents have historically viewed the city’s schools. In 2008, 23 percent of residents had positive views of schools, and 38 percent said this in 2014. In 1996, 16 percent rated the schools positively.

The racial disparities over who is returning to D.C. classrooms puts equity spotlight on reopening plan

In the latest poll, public and charter school parents voice a desire for flexibility with remote schooling. When Bowser partially reopened school buildings in February 2021, White families disproportionately enrolled to return, with many Black and Hispanic residents staying home. It was a trend that unfolded across the country as many low-income Black and Hispanic communities were hit harder by the virus than White neighborhoods.

A majority of traditional public and charter school parents — 68 percent — say the city should allow families to choose between learning in-person and virtually, according to The Post’s poll. Three in 10 parents say all students should be required to attend school in person.

Everette Burwell, a father of two teenagers in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Southeast Washington, said his youngest son earned straight A’s while school buildings were closed and joined virtual clubs during his freshman year at School Without Walls, a competitive-application high school in downtown Washington. Multiple people in his household are immunocompromised, and Burwell said he didn’t want his son to return in-person this past fall for his sophomore year.

But finding a school that would allow his son to remain virtual would mean giving up his hard-earned slot at Walls, and he and his wife believed it would be better for their son’s college and professional prospects to remain at the elite public school.

Burwell said he and his neighbors often feel Bowser ignores the voices of residents east of the river — swaths of the city with the largest concentrations of poverty.

“It was a challenging decision to allow him to go back, and without a doubt we would have kept him virtual if we could,” said Burwell, who is Black and works as a budget analyst for a suburban school system. “But we did not want him to lose his slot because he worked hard to get it.”

Sara Cherkis said remote learning was a “disaster” for her preschool- and elementary-aged children last academic year. She said the charter school in Northwest Washington they attended did not offer them in-person slots last year.

She moved them to their neighborhood D.C. public school campus this academic year and has had a positive experience. While she thinks it’s time to stop mandating that children wear masks outdoors at school, she believes the mayor has taken the right approach to reopening schools and is glad she emphasized full-time, in-person learning for all students.

“When it comes to the 2021-2022 school year, and getting schools open, she definitely delivered,” said Cherkis, a White resident in the 16th Street Heights area whose children attend John Lewis Elementary. “This is the one thing she has done during the pandemic that I actually fully agree with and support.”

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.