The mixed feelings reflect deep and widespread anxiety among parents as they approach the end of a summer break that has produced no national consensus on how to balance the risks of the virus against the academic, social and economic impacts of keeping schools closed.
Given three options for the fall, a plurality of parents — 44 percent — want their schools to offer a mix of online and in-person classes, an idea that has been considered by many school districts and adopted by some. In a close second place is all-virtual education, favored by 39 percent of parents.
Fully in-person school, the approach pushed by President Trump and his allies in Congress, comes in a distant third, with 16 percent favoring it for their children. A separate question finds that two-thirds of parents oppose requiring all public schools to open for in-person classes five days a week, with one-third supporting it.
“They need to be in school but at the same time I don’t think being inside a tiny little classroom with 30 other kids for eight hours a day is feasible either,” said Ali Lewin, 37, of Broward County, Fla., who has children entering kindergarten, ninth and 12th grades.
In a survey conducted by her school district, she voted for the hybrid model, hoping to give her kids some face-to-face time with teachers while minimizing the risk of infections. She’s particularly concerned about how her youngest will learn to read and about her ninth-grader, who struggles to stay focused on her work.
Broward was planning on a hybrid system. But with the virus surging in South Florida, the district reversed course in mid-July and announced it would begin the year fully remote.
The survey of parents, conducted July 24 to July 31 by The Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, comes as school districts across the country finalize their plans for the fall semester amid both an escalating spread of the virus and pressure from Trump to reopen. The poll interviewed 1,185 parents with children entering kindergarten through 12th grade from Ipsos’s randomly sampled panel of U.S. households, and was administered after a sustained push in early and mid-July by Trump to open school buildings. Results among parents carry a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Overall, 56 percent of parents say it would not be safe to send children back to school in their communities for in-person learning, while 44 percent say it would be safe. More than 7 in 10 parents say they would be uncomfortable with their children seated in full-occupancy classrooms and more than 6 in 10 say the same about children participating in sports and riding the bus.
Parents who are skeptical about schools reopening safely are also pessimistic that the situation will improve soon. Among those who say schools are not safe for in-person classes this fall, 33 percent say it will take until January for schools to be safe, with another 55 percent saying it will take longer than that.
Half of parents, though, say they are comfortable with half-full classrooms, another indication of support for hybrid learning systems where children take turns inside buildings.
The survey shows deep partisan, economic and racial divides on the question of safety, with Republicans, White parents and those with children in private schools far more likely to call in-person school safe. Conversely, clear majorities of Democrats, independents, Black and Hispanic parents, and those with children in public schools say it’s not safe to go back to campuses.
Most parents from households with lower and middle incomes say going back is not safe, while those earning more than $75,000 are divided.
The results underscore how much partisan divisions over the outbreak’s severity — and reactions to Trump’s strongly voiced opinion that schools fully reopen — are influencing how parents want their children’s schools to operate this fall.
“Whatever he says, just do the opposite and we’ll be fine,” said Mitchell Williams, 56, a Democrat in Vallejo, Calif., who has an eighth-grader as well as two children in their 20s. He says it is premature to reopen schools, even though in-person education is needed.
Williams said he formed his opinion on his own but is not surprised to be on the opposite side of Trump. He fears, among other things, that children in school buildings will not follow public health guidelines meant to keep them safe and that infections will spread.
“They’re going to be touching and feeling and they’re going to be talking and laughing and coughing and sneezing and they’re going to forget all about it and it’s going to spread and they’re going to take it home,” he said. “It’s like being on a cruise ship. It’s going to spread like wildfire.”
Most parents disapprove of the way the Trump administration has handled the issue of school reopening — as do most adults overall. Among parents, 63 percent disapprove while 36 percent approve. More than 4 in 10 “strongly” disapprove, roughly three times the share of those who strongly approve. Views of parents are mirrored among the broader public, with an identical 63 percent of Americans disapproving of Trump’s handling of school reopenings in a parallel survey.
Skepticism over in-person schooling may also be influenced by the experience parents had with online education that was thrust upon them this spring. Experts have deep concerns about the quality of that schooling, but about 6 in 10 parents think virtual education went well in the spring, including similar majorities across racial and income groups.
Black and Hispanic parents, who are among the most likely to call in-person school unsafe, are also more likely to say they worry that they or a family member might become infected by the virus. Overall, 33 percent of parents say they are “very worried” that someone in their family might catch the virus, but that rises to 48 percent among Black parents and 51 percent among Hispanics. The survey finds a strong correlation, in general, between worries about infection and concerns about in-person schooling.
The national debate has revolved around a balancing of risks, with imperfect information informing the analysis. Children do not generally show symptoms of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and they are unlikely to die. But there is evidence they can transmit it to others. At the same time, teachers and other adults in school buildings face the risks of infection if they are exposed.
Yet there are also real risks to online learning, which experts saw as wholly inadequate — and in some cases disastrous — in the spring. Some children don’t have computers or reliable Internet connections. Teachers have little experience conveying complex material online. And school is where many children receive meals, counseling and social interactions.
The Post-Schar School survey finds parents are aware of and worried about all of this.
Eight in 10 say they worry going back into school on a full schedule will lead to teachers or their families becoming sick, and about the same share worry it will increase spread of the coronavirus in their communities. Nearly as many say opening schools could lead to their own children or families getting sick, with majorities of Black and Hispanic parents saying they are “very concerned” about this, compared with about one-third of White parents.
Yet most parents — even some who say it’s safe to open schools — are also concerned about the consequences of more virtual education. Nearly 7 in 10 say they worry children will fall behind in their education. Just over 6 in 10 say they worry their children’s friendships will suffer and almost as many worry that their kids will become depressed. Among parents who anticipate at least partially online instruction this fall, 54 percent expect the quality to be worse than in-person classes, compared with 12 percent who think it will be better and 34 percent who expect no difference.
Economic concerns are not as widespread. Just over 1 in 4 parents say their families would struggle to find child care if schools are closed. About half of working parents say online-only schools would make work harder or even impossible, while the other half say it would have no effect. Parents with children in fifth grade or below were significantly more likely to express concern about finding child care and working if their children’s schools only offer remote learning.
To help schools work through the issue, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has offered a range of guidance documents, including recommendations such as spacing children apart and wearing face coverings. Mask requirements are quite popular, according to the Post-Schar School survey, with 85 percent favoring them as a requirement for teachers and 78 percent for students if in-person school comes back.
Republicans are less likely to favor mask requirements; still, 59 percent of them support this for students and 72 percent for teachers. More than 9 in 10 Democrats support students and teachers wearing masks and more than 8 in 10 independents say the same.
Kaizhou Zhu, a Republican living in Concord, Mass., said his children went to on-site camp this summer and successfully wore masks. He’s confident the same will be the case inside schools, and he supports reopening them.
His district plans a hybrid system where children in elementary school will be in school in the mornings and older children will alternate days at home and in buildings.
Zhu echoes nearly 2 in 3 parents nationally who express confidence that officials at their children’s schools will take appropriate precautions to limit the spread of the coronavirus if they offer in-person classes at some point this fall.
“I’d rather they open for the whole day but for now I think it’s ok,” Zhu said. “At least in Massachusetts people are following the guidelines pretty well, and we wear masks everywhere.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.