Third of parents may not send kids back to school this fall as COVID-19 uncertainty grows

ANN ARBOR, Mich. —  Summer vacation is in full-swing for students across the country. For their parents, the coronavirus pandemic already has them worried about what school will be like this fall. A study of nearly 1,200 parents finds a third of those polled aren’t sure they’ll let their children go back to class during the next school year.

Parents are also split on what measures schools should use to prevent another outbreak of COVID-19.

Researchers from the University of Michigan surveyed parents from Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio in mid-June. Families were asked about their current fall plans and their thoughts about 15 possible safety steps that might be taken by educators.

Most of the respondents feel, naturally, their child will get a better education by returning to class. Continuing uncertainty over the virus, however, is making this a hard decision.

“On the one hand, sending children to school could increase the risk of COVID-19 among children and family members,” says Dr. Kao-Ping Chua in a statement. “On the other hand, children who don’t return to in-person school may experience disruptions in their education. Some families simply don’t have a choice because they need to go to work.”

Income inequalities

Regardless of how safe schools are this fall, some parents admit they have to send their children back to class.

School classroom in the age of coronavirus / COVID-19
Most parents surveyed in three states support safety measures to reduce COVID-19 exposure at school, including decreasing the number of children on buses, daily temperature screens for students, alternating between in-person and online classes, regular testing of school staff, and requiring school staff and older children to wear masks. (Image credit: Michigan Medicine)

“We have no family to babysit and do not have the funds to hire a babysitter if the kids stay home. If one of us has to stay home to watch them we will likely lose our house,” explains a respondent from Ohio.

Although having schools open may help many working parents, more low-income households are actually planning to keep their kids out of class. Chua and his team say 40 percent of low-income families may keep at least one child home during the pandemic.

“The disparity by household income raises the possibility of potential educational disruption among less advantaged students,” Chua says.

The study also reports more Asian, Black, and Hispanic parents are considering keeping their children home this fall, compared to White parents surveyed. Chua says the U.S. education system needs to be prepared to have high-quality services ready for families who prefer remote learning this fall.

What’s the plan to keep COVID-19 out of schools?

Most parents agree that schools have to take steps to keep the classroom free of COVID-19. Not every suggestion is receiving rave reviews, unfortunately.

Three-quarters of the survey support daily temperature checks for students. That group also says children should be screened for COVID-19 if a classmate tests positive. Only half of the parents approve of random, weekly coronavirus tests.

When it comes to social distancing, over 60 percent say they’re in favor of fewer students on school buses, staggered arrival and departure times, and alternating between in-person and remote learning sessions.

One plan that isn’t popular is closing down playgrounds and ending after-school programs.

Parents are also split on wearing face masks. Most of the poll agreed school staff, middle school, and high school students should keep wearing masks. The study finds there is much less support for younger children wearing them, specifically kids between kindergarten and second grade.

An era of uncertainty

As states across the U.S. deal with setbacks in their reopening plans, many parents remain in an education limbo.

Chua says some states, like Michigan, are still working on their plans to reopen schools in the fall. What lawmakers and educators say will likely play a big role in how crowded classrooms are in September. “Many are waiting to see how schools address safety and how the pandemic evolves,” the pediatrician and researcher explains.

The study says it will be important to continue monitoring how parents are feeling about COVID-19, with a new school year less than three months away.

The parent survey was published by the Susan B. Meister Child Health Evaluation and Research Center.

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