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OP-ED: The public has little faith in a return to school

Francis Wilkinson
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)
A school bus is parked with the rest of the buses at their terminal, Friday, July 10, 2020, in Zelienople, Pa. Pennsylvania schools are working on how they will safely transport students this fall, but one idea that won't be part of the plan is to install plastic barriers around school bus drivers. The state Transportation Department rejected that idea recently, saying there wasn't evidence it'll make anyone safer. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

President Donald Trump this week began demanding that schools open in the fall. It’s a successor to his demand last spring that the economy reopen full throttle, and it looks like it will be similarly ignored.

Both are excellent goals, of course. Lots of experts, from pediatricians to economists, stress the importance of students returning to class. But as long as Trump’s safe-schools planning consists of an all-caps tweet, the president is unlikely to convince a few crucial constituencies — principals, teachers, parents — that he has their best interests at heart.

Only 12.4% of school principals say they are “extremely confident” in their school or district’s ability to “preserve the health of staff and students” if school opens in the fall, according to a survey released this week by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Another 22.8% felt “somewhat confident.”

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Imagine the delight of parents and teachers upon learning that their school principal is “somewhat confident” of keeping disease and death at bay. Now consider that the majority of principals can’t muster even that lukewarm endorsement. More than a third of the 1,450 principals who responded to the survey reported feeling “somewhat unconfident” or “not at all confident.”

Principals are also wary of the politics of Covid-19. “My fear is that the public will be looking at each measure as a political statement, and some will ignore the advice of health officials in regards to their kids just to prove a point,” one respondent said. “I’m not looking forward to arguing with those who don’t take this seriously,” another said. And there are practical problems for which there are no real answers: “How do you tell a four-year old to social distance?” one principal asked.

In California, where coronavirus cases are resurgent, officials are now in full retreat from school openings. “Every single school district at this point needs to have plans in place to continue distance learning for 100% of the time,” Los Angeles Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told administrators this week.

Principals and health officials are not the only ones lacking confidence.

In a USA Today/Ipsos poll in May, when the pandemic outlook was brighter than it is today, 87% of teachers said they expected difficulty enforcing social distancing among students. A robust 18% said they would quit working if their school were to reopen. Among teachers over age 55, that rose to 25%.

So the majority of principals express limited confidence in their ability to keep schools safe, and almost one-fifth of the teaching corps said in May that they would abandon their jobs if schools reopen.

OK. How’s it going with parents?

According to a parallel USA Today/Ipsos poll taken in May, 46% of Americans (47% among parents with at least one K-12 student) support a return to in-person schooling before there is a coronavirus vaccine. If schools reopen in fall, 59% of parents said they would likely pursue at-home learning such as remote school or homeschooling, and 30% said they would be very likely to do so. In a national survey of Hispanic parents and grandparents conducted this month by Latino Decisions, 53% of Hispanic parents or caregivers said they are considering not sending their children to school or childcare this fall even though 83% are worried that their students are falling behind.

The lack of confidence in school openings mirrors a lack of confidence in the president. Only 41% of respondents to a Pew Research Center poll last month said they are confident or somewhat confident that Trump can handle the “public health impact of the coronavirus outbreak.”

It’s surely true that millions of parents are desperate to send their kids back to school, and many teachers and administrators are equally desperate to resume their vocations and a normal life. No doubt many would grasp at anything resembling a coherent plan from the White House. No such plan exists.

— Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.