VIRGINIA — About half of readers believe schools will be prepared to reopen for the new academic year amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to an informal Patch survey.
The survey, conducted from mid-day Tuesday to mid-day Thursday, received 1,154 responses. It is not meant to be a scientific survey but rather an informal way to gauge public opinion.
We conducted the survey as school districts either announced or are preparing reopening plans for the 2020-2021 academic year. A hybrid plan with virtual and in-person learning appears to the path forward for Northern Virginia school districts such as Fairfax County Public Schools, Arlington County Public Schools and Loudoun County Public Schools. In these three school districts, families could opt out of hybrid instruction and receive full-time virtual learning.
If in-person learning is part of the reopening plan, schools will look vastly different from past school years. Because of CDC and state guidelines such as physical distancing, school districts may have to plan for measures such as rotating days for in-person classes, spacing in classrooms and buses.
In our survey, 51.2 percent of respondents believe schools can safely reopen in the fall while 35.5 percent said "no" and 13.3 percent said "not sure."
Preferences for different reopening scenarios are mixed. The highest share — 42.4 percent — believe there should be 100-percent in-person learning. Meanwhile, 28 percent believe schools should run on 100-percent virtual education, and 26.3 percent support the hybrid model of in-person and virtual learning. The remaining 13.3 percent were undecided.
Despite different preferences for reopening, 93.3 percent of readers believe families should be able to opt out of in-person learning based on medical needs.
While a majority of readers supported the face mask requirement in our Virginia reopening survey, respondents were more divided on the place of face masks in school settings. In all, 39.6 percent do not believe it is realistic to have children wear face masks in a school setting. By comparison, 26.5 percent want to see all children wear face masks and 29.6 percent believe it is realistic for only older children. The remaining 4.2 percent said "not sure."
Lastly, we wanted to measure the impact of a virtual school year on child care needs. In all, 49.1 percent said child care would not be a concern, 43.6 percent said it would be a concern, and 7.3 percent were undecided.
We received over 450 additional comments on families' sentiments. A common thread was a concern about virtual learning's impact on learning and well-being, particularly among young students. And multiple readers in Fairfax County had criticism for the school district's virtual learning in the last school year.
One reader wrote," Children, especially elementary age and special education, need the environment and stimulation of in-person school. I believe that more harm is being done by keeping them out of school than them potentially getting COVID-19."
Some readers don't want a one-size-fits-all approach for different age groups. As one parent said, "The key are options. Our 7 year old should be in school 4-5 days a week. Our 17 year old can do fine with a blend. The younger ones do not learn much on the virtual side and the loss of socialization is devastating to their growth."
One parent who has a special needs student said, "I do not think the online learning is nearly as effective for her. Yet I am greatly worried about safety. I wish Fairfax would give one-on-one learning to the special needs kids in class and limit their exposure to others because they are at high risk."
On the opposing side, there's concern about the spread of the virus impacting students' families and teachers. Some believe the decision should be reevaluated later in the school year, or when a coronavirus vaccine is available.
"Perhaps beginning the first semester 100% online and reassessing prior to the second semester will be the best solution since in January 2021 there might be a vaccine available that will protect teachers, staff, students, and their families from unnecessarily contracting this virus," said one reader.
Another said, "I am very concerned because young children really don't understand the concept of social distancing."
Bus drivers expressed their own worries about transporting children during the pandemic.
"I don’t believe [there] is a safe way to transport children on a school bus during this pandemic," one wrote. "This is coming from 38 years of experience transporting children to and from school."
Another person said, "I am school bus driver in a large Virginia district. I feel it will be nearly impossible for us to safely drive our students and to ensure required social distancing. Having so few students per run will cause an unrealistic exposure to drivers while having to do multiple runs to maintain limited numbers of students."