As schools across the country return to in-person learning, parents are divided. We thought the pandemic was over and, suddenly, with the surge of the Delta variant of COVID-19, it’s not. We thought school closures were history and we’d return to in-school learning and, suddenly, some parents are deciding to keep their children home for reasons that run the gamut from rising infection rates, the politicization of face masks, and vaccine mandates.
In many cases, state and school leaders are responding to this spectrum of comfort levels. According to CRPE, The Center for Reinventing Education, from July 29-August 12 the number of districts offering students a virtual alternative to in-person learning nearly doubled, from 41 to 79 percent.
Why some parents are turning down in-person learning for remote instruction.
The increase in COVID transmission rates is injecting more uncertainty into discussions about the safety of students and staff in typical classrooms. Take this Illinois parent who is considering removing her kindergartner until they are eligible for vaccination if testing and distancing expectations cannot be met,
Then there’s this recent poll conducted by Hart Research Associates for education and civil-rights groups that found more than one quarter of parents said they’re not yet comfortable sending their children to school in person unless strong safety protocols were present for students and staff.
But COVID isn’t all that is in play with the growing number of parents demanding remote options.
In Oakland, California, parent activists told the school board that remote instruction offers “quality learning opportunities for all students.” And, in New Jersey, the newly-formed group “Parents For Virtual Choice” is growing every day.
For some students with disabilities, especially those on the autism spectrum, remote instruction was a boon. This mom of a 13-year-old said, "When the pandemic first hit, online school was a bit messy for everyone. But my older daughter did so well with it. She started participating more with teachers and became more comfortable than when she was in a school setting. Her grades were amazing."
A principal of a virtual school in Colorado Springs told CNN, "We heard from parents who were frustrated with the negative narrative around online learning because that hadn't been their experience. Those generalizations dismiss what has worked for so many families --- and that population does matter."
In addition, an increasing number of parents have disenrolled their children from public schools altogether and opted for homeschooling.
Then there’s the parents who are welcoming in-person learning.
Various polls show that millions of parents want a return to in-person learning, largely to combat learning loss and social isolation. In Massachusetts, a recent survey about how federal recovery money should be spent showed 70% of parents wanted their child to learn in person this fall.
A national poll this past March from Gallup found that the “vast majority” of parents want their children back in school buildings but there were significant partisan differences. For instance, while 79% of parents said they support “providing in-person schooling” in their communities, Republicans favored this mode of instruction at far higher rates—94 percent—compared to Independents (80%) and Democrats (62%).
Another important factor for working parents is the cost of childcare and its scarcity. “I don’t know anyone that is not struggling,” said Susannah Lago, a mom, business owner, and founder of the group Working Moms of Milwaukee.
Are some parents more in favor of remote instruction than others?
Yes. Across the country, various surveys find that far more Black and Hispanic parents are in favor of virtual instruction and less comfortable with in-school learning. Last summer one poll found that almost 70 percent of Black households with school-aged children said they support or strongly support keeping all instruction online but only 32 percent of white parents felt that way.
A recent national survey from Rand finds about 20% of both Black and Hispanic parents were most hesitant about sending their children back for in-person schooling in fall 2021 compared to white and Asian parents.
Analysts provide various reasons for the difference in comfort levels: communities of color have been harder hit by COVID-19 due to other social determinants of health like food insecurity, affordable housing, and access to health care. Also, Black Americans have higher rates of pre-existing conditions—diabetes and high blood pressure—that could lead to worse outcomes if they get the virus.
How are large school districts and states responding to parent concerns?
States are, well, all over the map. Thirty-eight of them (including the District of Columbia) have approved permanent virtual learning schools: Florida is operating a statewide school district called Florida Virtual School; Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite expanded the district virtual school, Philadelphia Virtual Academy, after a survey found that 8,000 families want a remote option; and Indianapolis is offering parents the option of two virtual charter schools.
But that leaves 13 states where parents have no other options besides disregarding their personal calculus of risk, joining a “micropod,” or learning how to homeschool their kids.
To track the changes, refer to CRPE’s database on policies for masking, vaccines, full in-person instruction, virtual learning options, and continuity of learning plans, both in individual states and large school districts.
The bottom line?
Parents are choosing in-person learning and remote instruction for a myriad of reasons but districts need to be able to meet a family’s needs wherever they fall on the spectrum—and right now every district is not doing that, leaving some families out to dry.