Parents frustrated, concerned with pandemic school year, poll finds
Hybrid model draws especially negative views
THE OVERWHELMING MAJORITY of Massachusetts K-12 students are either learning remotely from home or in a hybrid model that mixes in-person and at-home instruction, and most parents have a dim view of how the school year upended by the coronavirus pandemic is affecting their children.
Those are among the findings from a new poll of Massachusetts parents, who offer particularly negative reviews of hybrid learning. Meanwhile, pandemic “pods,” in which families share childcare and remote learning supervision, are not that common, despite the flurry of national and local attention they’ve received, according to the survey conducted by the MassINC Polling Group.
Overall, more than half of Massachusetts parents (52 percent) think the school year that’s been completely reshaped by the pandemic is having a negative impact on their child’s academic learning. Similar numbers of parents say the school year is having negative effects on their child’s mental health, social and behavioral skills, and opportunities for friendship.
The findings come from a poll of 1,549 parents of school-age children in Massachusetts. The poll was sponsored by the Boston-based Barr Foundation, with input from The Education Trust, a national nonprofit focused on promoting educational excellence in schools serving low-income and minority children.
There were clear demographic differences in which school model students are enrolled in, with lower-income black and Latino students the most likely to be in all-remote settings, while white and higher-income families were more likely to have children in hybrid models.
More than a quarter of all parents — 28 percent — think their child is falling behind grade level academically, a figure that has risen from 22 percent in a poll conducted in May and June. The figures are substantially higher than the 13 percent of parents who believed their child was behind grade level before the onset of the pandemic. Black and Latino parents were more likely to say their child has fallen behind than were white and Asian parents.
One surprising finding was that hybrid parents had a more pessimistic view of the school year than those with children who are learning fully remotely. Parents with children in hybrid models were much more likely to say the changes to school this year were having negative impacts on academic learning as well as on mental health and social and behavioral skills.
Maeve Duggan, research director at the MassINC Polling Group, said the finding was “somewhat of a surprise considering how much time and effort and thought went into setting up these hybrid models over the summer, and the idea that getting kids at least some amount of in-person time was beneficial.” She said the findings suggest that as “in a classic compromise, everybody ends up unhappy.”
Kimberly Freitas, a poll respondent whose 9th grade son is following a hybrid model at Tewksbury High School, said it’s been a very trying year. Her son has in-person classes two days a week, for four hours. But she said various coronavirus safety protocols chew up one hour and another ends up lost as teachers struggle to teach students in-person and those logged on remotely.
Freitas said her son has struggled with depression from the isolation of having nearly all his school time spent in his bedroom on a laptop. His academic performance has also fallen dramatically, she said, as he’s gone from honor roll student with an A average to drawing Cs this year.
“They used to say restrict your children’s access to a computer to two to three hours a day. Now they’re keeping him on there for eight or nine hours a day,” she said. “I think the teachers are doing the best they possibly can. It’s got to be impossible for them.”
Overall, 57 percent of public school parents said they feel their school is doing all it can. The figure was similar for Catholic school parents (58 percent), while it was higher for private schools (69 percent) and lower for charter school parents (50 percent). Parents gave higher marks to their child’s teachers than they did to the school or district.
The Cambridge schools are fully remote for all students above third grade, though Foster said her son in 5th grade goes into his school for an hour each week to receive special education services.
“Our mental health is starting to slide,” Foster said of the pandemic’s impact on her and her sons. “I feel like the school district is probably doing about as good as they can. But the best they can do isn’t what we need. We need normalcy.”
When asked what factors they considered important in weighing school options for this year, 50 percent of all parents cited health and safety, followed by 38 percent who said academic/learning opportunities.
That may help explain why 58 percent of remote-learning parents made that choice despite having hybrid or in-person options available in their district.
Tracy Novick, a member of the Worcester School Committee, said those opting for hybrid learning may have had unrealistic expectations. “If you chose hybrid, my guess is you really value and think highly of that in-school experience, considering what you thought it was going to be and where on the scale of normal it was,” she said. “I can see that leading to a lot of disappointment.”
In a school year that no one thinks is ideal, the choice of all-remote or hybrid may come down to figuring out the least bad option.
Under an all-remote model, said Justin Reich, director of the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT, at least “all can row in the same direction and conceivably produce a more coherent, effective system.” It seems plausible, he said, that when teachers are juggling in-person learning, with different students who come in on different days, while also trying to provide remote instruction to those at home, “that they don’t serve any of those groups well.”
Despite the attention that has been paid to learning “pods” established outside of formal school settings, only 15 percent of parents say they have a child taking part in a pod. Although there has been considerable concern expressed that the ability to access learning pods will exacerbate existing inequities, there was no significant difference in the share of families participating in pods by income or race.
Parents were not overly impressed by schools’ use of remote learning technology, with only 42 percent saying their child’s school is using technology “very well.” Private schools got much higher marks, with 60 percent of parents of private school students rated technology use highly.
Access to devices for remote learning has generally increased since June, though 10 percent of parents say they still don’t have enough devices in their household for all work and school needs. Duggan called the increase a “bright spot” in the findings. “We do know that a number of schools and districts made a real effort to make sure every kid had a dedicated device at home.”
Internet access, meanwhile, continues to be a barrier for families, with 13 percent of parents saying they lack sufficient access. Those rates are highest for families with income under $50,000, 23 percent of whom report inadequate internet access. For race and ethnic groups, black and Latino parents reported the biggest gaps, with 19 percent of Latino parents and 27 percent of black parents reporting inadequate online access.
More parents of English language learners say their children are getting access to services and more are rating it as adequate than was the case in June.
More parents of children with special needs say they are receiving services than in June, but more are also rating the services as inadequate.
Freitas, the mother of the Tewksbury High School freshman, probably spoke for many parents when she reflected on just how much the pandemic has overturned everything for her son.“This is supposed to be the best time of his life,” she said of his first year in high school. “I tell him you have two jobs: get an education and have fun, and he’s not doing either.”