For perhaps the first time in recent history, every school district across the nation is seriously considering the question of whether their institutions should physically reopen in the fall, given the risk of spreading the coronavirus. President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have called for schools to physically reopen. These public declarations have brought mass resistance from K-12 teachers, with many threatening to strike if forced to enter the classroom.
Many teachers are concerned that reopened schools will further spread covid-19. Others worry that Black, Latinx and low-income students will be further disadvantaged by the potential learning losses associated with instruction online only.
The stakes are high and the debate has been highly politicized. Our research asked: What do ordinary Americans think about schools reopening? How does race shape these attitudes?
Here is what we discovered.
Americans don’t want schools to reopen
Between July 30 and Aug. 1, we fielded a nationally representative poll of 1,273 U.S. adults with the survey firm Prolific to assess these questions. The vast majority of our respondents, 62 percent, expressed strong opposition to schools reopening. Only 19 percent felt schools should reopen, and the remaining 19 percent said they were undecided.
Those opinions divide more by race and party. Black Americans were the most likely to oppose reopening schools. Seventy percent of Black Americans oppose reopening schools, a jump from the 57 percent of Whites who do. The gap was largest between Democrats and Republicans, with 74 percent of Democrats opposing the reopening, compared with only 35 percent of Republicans.
Americans, particularly Black and Latinx Americans, fear learning losses
At the same time, most Americans worry students will fall behind in school, perhaps even losing what they’ve already learned. When we asked respondents whether they think learning losses from the pandemic shutdowns will affect children of someone like them, 76 percent said yes, it probably will.
Again, that varies strongly by race. While 73 percent of White respondents took this position, 82 percent of Black Americans and 83 percent of Latinx Americans expect their communities’ children to fall behind in learning.
Americans want schools to take precautions
If schools are to reopen, Americans strongly favor implementing precautionary policies to protect against the spread of covid-19. Support for the various precautions is consistently high across racial and ethnic groups. On average, close to 80 percent of the full sample supports frequent and mandatory coronavirus testing. Over 80 percent support keeping students six feet apart at all times. About 85 percent support mandating all students and employees wear masks while in school. Meanwhile, 80 percent support staggering schedules, so at no time would all students be physically present, with some attending on some days and times while others attend at other days and times, leaving more room for social distancing. But the policy idea with the highest level of support — backed by fully 90 percent of respondents — is for students to continue learning remotely, from home.
Again, though, there are partisan differences, with Republicans less likely to support protective measures — even though significant majorities do. When asked about covid-19 testing for school reopenings, 67 percent of Republicans support it; 76 percent support social distancing within schools; 71 percent support mandatory mask-wearing policies; 69 percent support staggering schedules, and 80 percent support allowing students to continue remotely.
Americans trust some leaders more than others on schools and pandemic decisions
We asked respondents how much they trust different political figures to provide accurate information on covid-19. Just over two-thirds (69 percent) expressed “a lot” or at least “some” trust in their city’s mayor. Slightly less than two-thirds (65 percent) extend that level of trust to their state governor. Meanwhile, only 55 percent of respondents said they trusted their local school leaders.
Perhaps most interesting, only 24 percent of our sample said they trusted Trump’s information on covid-19. This distrust, though, breaks down along partisan lines, with 72 percent of Republicans saying they trust information from the president compared with just 7 percent of Democrats.
Overall, we find while many citizens have strong reservations about schools reopening, that’s especially true among Black Americans, who also worry that remote instruction will cause Black and Latinx students to fall behind. That’s because Black and Latinx parents in our sample are less likely to have access to a desktop computer or laptop, with 19 percent of Black parents and 18 percent of Latinx parents saying they experience difficulty compared with only 8 percent of White parents.
As covid-19 deaths continue to climb, it is unsurprising the issue of school reopenings has become contentious. With the economic downturn, many adults feel under pressure to return to work — and many, if not most, working parents rely on schools for daytime child care. Further, many American parents rely on schools to provide mental and physical health services, supervised play and physical activity, free meals, and individualized learning plans, all difficult to replace when those schools are physically closed. At the same times, families don’t want to risk their health and their lives for these resources.
Nonetheless, the many debates surrounding school reopenings up to this point have largely focused on the sentiments of school district leaders and teachers, often excluding the everyday Americans most directly affected. Our survey makes their opinions on the matter pretty clear: Most don’t want their schools physically reopened. Time will reveal whether school district leaders take their side.
Jonathan E. Collins (@ProfJonCollins) is an assistant professor of education at Brown University.
Sally A. Nuamah (@Sally_Nuamah) is an assistant professor of urban politics at Northwestern University.