Half of Michigan residents don’t believe it’s safe for children to return to in-person classroom learning in the coming weeks because of health concerns about the coronavirus, according to a statewide poll conducted by EPIC-MRA for Bridge Michigan.
The poll, conducted July 25-30, found 51 percent of respondents said they didn’t believe their local schools will be safe enough for parents to send their children back to classrooms, while 36 percent said schools would be safe to reopen; 13 percent didn’t know or declined to answer.
Parents divided on reopening
POLL QUESTION: Whether you are a parent of one or more school-age children or not, based on your understanding of state government recommendations and the plans of area local school districts for masks and social distancing because of the coronavirus pandemic, do you think it will be safe enough for parents to send their children back to your local schools in the fall for in-person classroom settings, or, do you think it will not be safe enough?
No, it is not safe enough
Yes, it is safe enough
The poll offers a stark warning that despite promises of enhanced safety protocols in schools and assurances from some state leaders that kids rarely get sick from COVID-19, parents still have high anxiety about putting their children on school buses while the pandemic is ongoing.
Concern about classroom safety was nearly uniform across age groups and education levels. Residents without children in schools felt schools were unsafe at higher levels than parents. There were gender differences: A majority of men with children (52 percent) said they felt schools were safe to reopen, while only 40 percent of women with children agreed.
The survey polled 600 active voters statewide, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. Forty percent of respondents were reached by cellphone.
The 36 percent who said their local schools would be safe to reopen represents a decline from earlier polling. In an EPIC-MRA poll taken in June, 46 percent of respondents said schools would be safe to reopen in August or September.
The earlier poll “was before spikes [in COVID-19 cases] in Florida and Arizona and California,” said Bernie Porn, president of EPIC-MRA. While Michigan’s coronavirus cases are far below the state’s peak in April, the daily count of new cases has ticked upward since June, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has issued a series of executive orders requiring face masks in interior public spaces and crowded outdoor events.
“I think people are scared about catching the coronavirus and that is impacting how they view opening up the schools,” Porn said.
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School district plans for this fall run the gamut from fully online in districts including Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and Lansing, to fully in-person, to hybrids. Meanwhile, political leaders in Lansing are still debating attendance and learning requirements for education this fall.
A Republican-backed bill requiring schools to offer an in-person education option for students in kindergarten through fifth grade was to be debated this week in the Senate, but legislators were sent home when a senator tested positive for coronavirus.
GOP Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said last week he was “dismayed” that Grand Rapids Public Schools were starting the school year fully online, arguing that children are less likely to become infected by COVID-19, and less likely to become seriously ill.
Democrats generally oppose an in-class requirement, arguing that even if children are less likely to become ill they can transmit the virus to medically compromised relatives and others. Democrat Gov. Whitmer hasn’t said whether she would veto a bill that included an in-person school requirement, but the governor’s school reopening plan released in June allows schools to be fully virtual.
In addition to the state’s GOP leaders, President Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have pushed for schools to bring students back into classrooms.
Amber McCann, spokesperson for Shirkey, said the majority leader “recognizes that some parents want traditional in-person learning, while others are more comfortable with a virtual learning experience,” and that “his focus is on providing certainty for school districts with regard to funding so that the district can make the plans necessary to offer options to the families they serve.”
Views on whether schools will be safe amid the ongoing pandemic varied widely among regions of the state and respondents’ political preferences.
In general, belief that schools are safe to reopen was higher in rural Northern Michigan than in the more urban lower third of the state.
For example, those polled in the metro Detroit region that includes Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties, which has been hard hit by the coronavirus, said schools will be unsafe, 54 percent to 33 percent. The story was similar in western Michigan, where 57 percent of those polled said they felt schools were unsafe.
Those views were reversed in Northern Michigan, where there have been far fewer cases of the potentially deadly infection. There, 47 percent of respondents said schools will be safe for children to return to classrooms.
How safe respondents believe school will be this fall also tracked closely with political views. Among those with a favorable view of Whitmer, just 15 percent said they believed schools will be safe for students. For those with an unfavorable view of the Democratic governor, 67 percent said their schools would be safe.
“There is a partisan prism on both sides” of the school reopening issue, Porn said.
Michigan’s public and private K-12 school buildings were ordered closed by Whitmer in mid-March to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Instruction continued remotely for suddenly homebound students, with online lessons or printed packets for the remainder of the school year.
Whitmer’s reopening guidelines for the 2020-21 school year, released June 30, require extensive cleaning protocols for school buildings. Teachers, staff and students in middle and high schools must wear face masks, and students are likely to eat at their desk rather than in crowded cafeterias. Many districts that have announced plans to bring students back to classrooms are also offering online instruction for families not comfortable returning to school while COVID-19 continues to spread.
Still, many parents are uneasy with sending their children back to classrooms in the midst of a global pandemic that has sickened 83,000 Michiganders and killed more than 6,200 since March.
One wary parent is Tessa Rayment-Gruber, whose 6-year-old daughter is preparing to enter first grade in East Lansing.
“I want my kid to have in-person instruction,” Rayment-Gruber said. “It’s easy to say, kids, they’ll be fine. But at the same time, they come home to us, and we see grandparents. It’s just not a risk I’m willing to take.”
East Lansing Public Schools recently announced plans to start the school year with homebound learning.
Rayment-Gruber said she was relieved by the district’s decision, and isn’t certain if daughter Mia will return to school even if the district opens school buildings in the falI.
“I don’t like feeling that things are out of my control when it comes to my family’s health and safety,” she said.
Robert McCann, executive director of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, a statewide education advocacy organization, said he isn’t surprised by the poll’s findings.
“While every educator and teacher is doing everything they can to provide the safest setting possible, there are things out of their control,” McCann said. “Anyone who thinks parents are going to be [comfortable] … is being naïve.”
Porn said polls he’s conducted for individual Michigan school districts of parents in those districts reveal that schools face a nearly impossible task pleasing everyone. “You have about 35 percent who don’t want to wear masks in school, and 20 percent that won’t go back [to classrooms during the pandemic] and 40 percent who will go back if there are precautions,” Porn said.
Those varied, hardened positions by families are why most Michigan schools are offering options in which students can attend classes in-person some or all of the week, or take all classes online, said Peter Spadafore, deputy executive director for external relations for the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators.
The notion is to provide options that “address the concerns of parents as much as possible,” Spadafore said.
“We all want our kids back in the building,” said parent Rayment-Gruber, “but we want to know it’s safe for them and the teacher and community to do that.”