November 30, 2020

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Do Parents Trust Schools? Where the Fault Lines Are During COVID-19

5 min read
—Emma Patti Harris/Education Week + Getty Parents are torn about whether they trust that schools...

—Emma Patti Harris/Education Week + Getty

Parents are torn about whether they trust that schools will safeguard their child’s health while they attend in-person classes during the coronavirus pandemic, as uncertainty continues to swirl about whether opening school buildings is the right move for districts.

Overall, half of parents responding to a survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center said they had a somewhat-to-very high level of trust that schools will keep their children healthy. Thirty percent of parents said they had a low-to-nonexistent level of trust in their child’s school. And about 21 percent said that they were on the fence, with equally high and low levels of trust. The results do not add up to 100 percent due to rounding.

But parental feelings on whether they trust schools varied based on their race, ethnicity, education level, and political affiliation. That aligns with a separate analysis in July by the Brookings Institution, which found that districts were more likely to be open to in-person learning if they were in communities that voted for President Trump four years ago, regardless of the local share of coronavirus cases.

The EdWeek Research Center survey found that Black parents, at 39 percent, parents who said they plan to vote for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, at 37 percent, and Latino parents, at 33 percent, were more likely than overall respondents to say they had low, or no, trust that schools could keep their children safe.

In contrast, parents who said they plan to vote for President Donald Trump in the upcoming presidential election and parents who are university graduates were more likely than other parents to report that they believe their children’s schools could safely handle in-person learning. Sixty-one percent of Trump voters reported high levels of trust, as did 56 percent of respondents with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Shenetria Jackson, a mother of three elementary-age students who attend the Pasadena District in suburban Houston, is keeping her three children enrolled in remote learning. The district is offering the choice of remote or virtual instruction. Jackson, who is Black, is undergoing treatment for cancer. She’s also lost an aunt to coronavirus and has worried as local infection rates have risen.

“You have all these elementary school kids—they don’t have patience for walking around with masks on for eight hours,” Jackson said.

Zoila Carolina Toma, of Signal Hill, Calif., lives in an area served by the Long Beach Unified school system. The district has already planned to go fully remote, which matches what Toma already wanted to do for her family.

“I cannot force teachers to go back to school,” said Toma, who is Hispanic. “I don’t know what challenges they’re facing; I don’t know if they have any underlying issues. If I want to keep my family safe, I need to make sure those teachers are safe.”

The survey of more than 2,000 K-12 parents was conducted in late August. The margin of error is plus-or-minus 2 percent.

Longstanding Disparities

The pandemic’s impact has been felt in every part of the country, but some communities are far more likely to have been affected directly—a possible explanation for the differing responses. Black, Latino, and American Indian people have been nearly three times more likely than white people to be infected with the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Black people are twice as likely as white people to die from coronavirus-driven illness.

Another possible factor: The findings reflect pre-existing and longstanding problems that Black and brown parents have had with their school systems.

“It’s a function of being frustrated with how schooling was being done before,” said Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, the national director of activism for Brightbeam, a network of educational advocates. “They weren’t consulted as equitable partners in the education of their child.”

Previous surveys conducted by other groups have found that Black and Latino people are less likely to want to return to in-person schooling. But Black and Latino people are also more likely to face challenges in accessing remote learning. The combination creates a profound equity challenge for families as well as school leaders.

But while Black parents were more likely to report having little trust in their schools, more than 4 in 10 still did.

Angela Davis, an African-American parent whose daughter attends 5th grade in Miamisburg schools in Ohio, said she understands the reservations that other parents may have about returning to in-person classes.

But she has sent her daughter back to school and happily so. The district has been “overcommunicating” with parents—in a positive way—and has offered a choice between in-person and remote learning, she said.

“I get why some of the very large districts are more cautious. They have a lot more moving parts,” Davis said. “The smaller suburban districts have the ability to make more decisions like what we’re making. They have a small amount of kids in small buildings.” Miamisburg enrolls roughly 5,000 students.

In the EdWeek Research Center survey, 12 percent of parents who said they will vote for Biden planned to send their children to full-time, in-person classes in public schools for the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, compared to 18 percent of respondents as a whole. Nearly half of Biden voters, 48 percent, said they would be enrolled in full-time remote, public school classes, compared to 39 percent of overall respondents. Among likely Trump voters, roughly 27 percent reported their children would attend full-time, in-person public school, 9 percentage points more than overall respondents. The same group was far less likely than respondents as a whole to report their children were attending full-time remote public school—26 percent, or 13 percentage points less than the overall percentage.

Latino parents, Black parents and Asian parents were more likely than overall respondents to report their children would engage in full-time remote learning, at 42, 44, and 63 percent, respectively.

A majority of parents polled felt that schools had done an adequate job teaching them how to support their children academically and emotionally. Parents were more likely to say they had received sufficient assistance from their child’s school on using educational technology—66 percent—than for social-emotional support, at 54 percent.

Overall, education advocates say that parents are an important, and sometimes overlooked, partner in helping children overcome the upheaval of the pandemic crisis.

In the spring, Phoenix Union High School District in Arizona rolled out a plan to have staff members contact each of its 29,000 students every day, as part of supporting families through the transition to remote learning.

This is a mind shift away from viewing families “as problems that needed to be solved,” said Stephanie Parra, the president of the district’s governing board and the executive director of the state advocacy group ALL in Education.

“We view our community as an asset that must be engaged with, that must be invested in, that must be supported,” Parra said.

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