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Brief # 51 Education

Education Brief – School reopening and parents’ perspectives

Emily Carty

December 14, 2020

As of December 12, eleven states plus D.C. and Puerto Rico have ordered schools to partially or fully close. Four state governments (Arkansas, Iowa, Florida, and Texas) have ordered schools open for the families that choose to attend. The rest have no orders in place, so the decisions are up to regional authorities and institutions.

While we have seen schools open and close in a matter of days throughout the pandemic, parents continue to have mixed feelings about when it is safe to send their kids back to school.  With a major surge in Covid cases throughout November, plans to reopen have faltered and the death toll has soared. Although health practitioners know more about treating the virus now, and despite a vaccine on the horizon, some experts warn that reopening for in-person learning has contributed to increased cases of the virus. Others warn that it is overall ineffective at decreasing the spread.

The New York Times reports that one of the “mercies” of this virus has been the smaller risk of  serious illness in children, nevertheless more than 1.4 million children have tested positive for Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic. What parents, schools, and governments must consider are the long-term effects of school closures on quality of education, and how that might influence the risk of poverty and health issues later on. Not to mention the effect of remote-learning on access to resources and food in the immediate context.

The CDC has put together a decision making toolkit for families deciding whether or not to send their children back to school. Many school districts are giving parents a choice to send their kids to school once they are open for in-person classes again. And although the risk of children contracting a severe illness due to Covid-19 is lower for younger kids, risk to family members, caregivers, and school staff could potentially be greater — which has put parents in a tough spot.

In California, Los Angeles has returned to distance learning amidst the highest rate of new cases thus far, and Orange County teachers unions are pressuring the school board to shut down all in-person services due to high hospitalizations and low ICU capacity. In San Diego, rival parent groups are protesting to either keep schools open or closed — everyone’s definition of “safe” is different. Just recently, New York City’s Mayor de Blasio loosened restrictions for opening schools. In school districts that have remained open, like in Florida, school-related outbreaks have numbered in the hundreds, yet schools stay open. Meanwhile, parents across the nation are calling on school leaders to look at the science — many families and doctors believe that school is the “essential business” for children and with precautions in place the spread will be minimal, albeit possible.

Families are drawing on the increasing data points which suggest that schools are not the superspreaders we expected them to be. Children and their teachers have certainly contracted the virus, perhaps in the school setting or perhaps outside. However through random testing and case studies across the US and abroad scientists and public health leaders are now seeing that increasing positive cases in school children do not necessarily correspond to spikes at home. Furthermore, when the right precautions are in place, schools can be relatively low-risk, particularly for elementary students. The issues seem to arise with older students and when there are high Covid rates in the general community. This is perhaps due to older students gathering outside of school in sports and extracurriculars. Plus, the added factor of indoor dining, bars, and shopping increases chances that adults will contract the virus and spread it to kids and throughout schools.

That being said, parents are wondering why businesses can open but schools can’t. In California, Pennsylvania, and New York parents have filed lawsuits calling for schools to reopen. Grassroots organizing and protests led by parents are springing up from Oregon to Georgia in the face of more school closures. Groups like The Oakland REACH, Parents Amplifying Voices in Education, Kids First Chicago, and Parent Revolution are putting families at the center of the discussion and empowering families to be part of devising the solution to education during Covid.

Understanding parents’ needs and perspectives should be a major aspect of crafting school reopening plans. In a recent study published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the US Department of Health and Human Services, a survey of 858 parents revealed differences in attitude toward school reopening for different ethnic groups. The survey suggested that more “White” identifying parents (62.3%) wanted schools to reopen for everyone in the fall, whereas fewer “Black” (46.0%) and “Hispanic” (50.2%) parents wanted a fall reopening. Almost all parents surveyed were concerned with their kids’ quality of education during the pandemic, but more (67.3%) White parents responded that returning to school for the experiences it gives is more valuable despite the risk of Covid — 56.5% of Black parents felt that way, and 53.9% of Hispanic parents and 53.4% of “Other / non-Hispanic.” While this is a small survey size and not indicative of the entire country, it is an important perspective to consider, especially with the pandemic exacerbating already present inequities across racial and class lines.

In order to ensure all student and family needs are met and concerns addressed, decision makers must consider how their constituents truly feel so that we can come together and make school reopening transparent, collaborative, and safe. The nation’s second largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, is doing just that. It has recently sent every parent a detailed survey asking their perspectives on reopening, and what makes them feel safe. Nonetheless, even if “safe reopening” plans are agreed upon by parents, part of the issue lies in the school’s ability to create a safe space and pay for the required Covid precautions. Without sufficient data, federal aid, and will to collaborate and communicate with other leaders, schools wishing to open are in a bind.

The CDC recently said that schools need almost $22 billion — nearly $442 per student — to reopen safely. Without that money, precautions against Covid might be futile, prolonging virtual learning and leaving parents frustrated. Newly elected Joe Biden has stated that school reopening is a priority. He strives to open schools within the first 100 days of his presidency, but notes that it is dependent upon congress providing adequate funding.


  • Parents Helping Parents – This organization has consolidated a broad set of resources for parents with students of all abilities and needs. Connect with parents and find detailed resources for addressing Covid and remote learning to best help your child and yourself succeed.
  • Parent Teacher Association – The National PTA offers plenty of resources for parents as well as advocacy tools. Take a look at their advocacy page to write letters to your congress people or find tools to be a more effective advocate for the students in your life.
  • National Parent Leadership Institute – This organization provides training for aspiring parent leaders as well as resources and a place to share your story. From a parent centered approach, NPLI seeks to uplift parents’ lived experiences to help them be better activists for their children and themselves.


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