Ep. 198: Schooling in America Survey – COVID-19 & K-12 Education

August 4, 2020

Authors of our latest report, Schooling in America: COVID-19 & K–12 Education, discuss some of the findings that stood out the most.

To read the first report in this year’s Schooling in America series, click here.

Mike Shaw: Hello, everyone. Welcome to another EdChoice Chats. I’m Mike Shaw, on our research team, and today I’m joined with Paul DiPerna, our vice president of research, and Drew Catt, our director of state research and special projects, to discuss Schooling in America, particularly the COVID-19 and education results, from a new and exciting wave and iteration of doing Schooling in America. For our long-time listeners, Schooling in America has been our ongoing annual survey project headed by Paul for many years now, and we traditionally do a large report release. This year though, with everything that’s been going on, and just with a real unique opportunity to see some changes over time, we decided to do things a little differently in two different waves of polls. One, whose field work was conducted late May to early June, and we had the results from that first wave and are going to be focusing on the COVID-19 impacts in education. So to start off, Paul, I was wondering if you could discuss the emphasis for doing this Schooling in America Survey differently this year, maybe kind of describing the processes, the pros and cons of two waves, and how we utilize those to kind of gauge public opinion on topics like K-12 schooling and the education sectors response to the pandemic.

Paul DiPerna: Sure. Yeah. Thanks, Mike. Yeah, it’s great to be with both of you guys on the podcast. And so, as you had mentioned, Mike, this is the Schooling in America Survey project, which we’ve been doing now for eight years, and so, as you mentioned in previous years, we would normally release our results in the fall in an annual report, and this year we have taken a different approach just with so much going on around the COVID pandemic and just the effects and disruptions it’s made on schools, and families, and educators across the country. And so we just tried to be responsive to what’s happening in this new era that we’re in right now, and so what we decided to do a few months ago is to instead of just doing one poll this year, we’re break it out into two waves, so two separate polls.

This first wave was launched on May 22 and ran through June 2. So this is right at the end of the school year, the responses that we’re getting from the field work, and then we will plan to do a second wave later this year in September, once everybody has likely gone back to school in some way, shape, or form, whether that’s in-person, fully remote, or something in between, a lot of people are calling hybrid these days, and then we’ll be able to see if opinions have changed on the same questions over the course of a few months. And so we’re really looking at change over time later this year when we report out results.

What we’re hearing talking about this first wave, we are releasing three reports over the next month or so, and this first one is really focused on the COVID impacts on schooling and on parents’ opinions, their experiences, their concerns and worries right now, both looking at what their experiences were before the pandemic at the end of the school year, and then also even looking forward to the fall and back to school.

And so just to kind of quickly run through the nuts and bolts of this first wave of Schooling in America. So as I mentioned this was conducted the last week of May up through June 2 at the end of the school year, that we partnered with Braun Research, who’s been our survey partner now for more than a decade and has done tremendous work for us. This is a general population survey of 1,605 respondents for the nationally representative sample, and then we also did additional sampling to get a more robust sample for current school parents. And so we also obtained interviews to achieve and obtain a sample of 805 school parents who have at least one child in kindergarten through 12th grade. This is a mixed methods survey. So the majority of the completed surveys were done online, and then we did also do some sampling and surveying by phone, a mixture of cell phone and landlines.

Mike Shaw: Not to cut you off, but is that the way polling is going these days, where you are seeing more and more online respondents, but mix methods is utilized to maybe still get a pretty robust and representative sample? Do I understand that correctly?

Paul DiPerna: Yeah, it’s a great question. So pollsters and survey researchers are really taking different approaches, and I think there are tradeoffs with any type of mode, whether it’s online, or phone, mail, in-person, and especially when it comes to non-response, but we have seen in the last probably four or five years, there has been pretty significant shift among most pollsters and survey researchers to do at least some online survey work, and whether that’s probability based or non-probability based, or otherwise called opt-in panels, which is at least part of the method for us with Schooling in America, and so, yeah, that’s a great question though. So there is this shift and it’s still kind of ongoing and organizations like AAPOR, or the American Association for Public Opinion Research, they have task forces that put out reports periodically to kind of give a thermometer reading in terms of the effectiveness of these different kinds of approaches and trying to see what best practices might be emerging.

Mike Shaw: Definitely. Well, thanks for that overview, Paul, and it really is kind of hard to believe looking back, because we’ve had time to digest these results, but it has been two months since this first wave of questions was in the field. Drew, thinking back in that time to late May, I know a lot of children and parents were wrapping up their spring semesters or we’re getting close to, but there were still a lot of unknown questions about how parents responded to these pandemic related interruptions resulting in some facet modes of online learning throughout the country. But when it came to their children’s education, it was still in its infancy, and we didn’t quite know how parents were responding and coping with at least being partially in charge of their children’s education, seeing that they were at home. So what stood out to you regarding our COVID-19 impact results from this first wave?

Drew Catt: Yeah. Thanks, Mike. And I really kind of like to think of the waves as what parents thought at the end of the school year for this past spring and what those experiences were, what they were thinking at that point in time, what the fall for their children might look like. And then wave two, really kind of what those experiences are in the upcoming school year, and how parents are hurdling barriers, tearing down challenges, and kind of addressing the world around them. But yeah, what really stood out to me and kind of what you’ll find in the key findings of the slide deck, it’s really at the end of the school year, a large proportion said they would choose distance or e-learning if the district provided that option. And that’s fascinating.

At least the district that my wife works in here in central Indiana, and Paul, I believe the district that your kids go to as well, multitude of districts are offering either full-time virtual, or potentially either a full in-person, or a hybrid approach. So that is something that we’re seeing. But really more than 40 percent of parents saying they’d be extremely or very likely to choose distance or online learning rather than their child physically going back to school in the fall. It’ll be interesting to see what those actual percentages shake out to nationally. I’ve heard that some school districts are, depending on the school building, 20 percent to 40 percent, so that may actually be in line kind of with what we saw.

We also heard from parents that between a quarter and a fifth of them said that they were not at all comfortable returning their children to school this fall. So it’ll really be interesting to see how parents address the coming weeks and months.
Now, when it came to anything specific to a household, we asked something that was different this time kind of to create some comparison groups, and we really piggybacked on the CDC’s language, and we asked, “Is there a person who lives in your household that has any of the following conditions or characteristics: a serious heart condition, chronic kidney disease, undergoing dialysis, diabetes, immunocompromised, liver disease, moderate to severe asthma or chronic lung injury, severe obesity, age 65 or older.” For those of you keeping track at home, those are really all of the categories that the CDC had laid out, at the time that we had conducted the survey, as having the potential to be at high risk. So with that, we were able to kind of group respondents into how many parents or gen pop respondents had one or more school children, but nobody else, at least one school aged child, and at least one other person, and then at least one person who’s not a school aged child. But really when we’re keying in on parents, it’s nearly one fourth school parents have at least one school aged child in their household who might be at high risk for a severe illness from COVID-19.

It really stands out more when we get into some of the more demographic breakouts. We can see that it is more than a quarter when we’re looking at Black school parents, and it’s roughly a quarter of the Hispanic school parents. But when we were looking at the white school parents, that’s only 20 percent, or one out of five. Then there are also some differentiations happening within other groups as well. The urban school parents are more likely than the suburban and small town rural parents to say that there’s someone in the household that’s high risk, the same with college grads compared to those who have not have a college degree, and interestingly males more than females. So, not entirely what to make of some of those breakouts, but really keying in on the race, ethnicity, and then the urban versus suburban versus small town rural. I think those could have some potential implications for, especially some of the larger urban school districts for this coming fall and how parents kind of respond to putting their child into the school.

Mike Shaw: Definitely. And yeah, thanks, Drew. That’s all fascinating to think about. I love how you described it how the waves are kind of partitioned between looking back to the spring and these parents haven’t just, many of them just experienced virtual learning for the very first time, and then looking ahead, both at our questions about the fall, but also about actual fall experiences later on, it’s going to be really interesting to see, but we kind of know that as a result of pandemic, that some prevalence of remote learning is going to be in place in schools throughout the fall. Drew, I appreciate your personal connections to teachers and just knowing how the different districts react there in Indianapolis. There isn’t always a unified voice or way to go about things when it comes to K-12 education, which can have its benefits in many senses, but with remote learning, we’re seeing all these different modes and operating procedures coming into the fall here.

That breaks down even further when it comes to the child’s experience with virtual learning. We’ve seen other polls attempt to kind of quantify remote learning that occurred in the spring. I found one poll that was interesting, for instance, by an organization called Youth Troupe. It was a survey of middle and high school students, and they reported a lot of things from the pandemic. One thing I found interesting was a self-reporting decrease of 21 percentage points, students reporting that they were learning a lot pre- and post-shift to virtual learning. So, we’re definitely getting a sense that there was an interruption. It wasn’t seamless by any means, that shift. What I liked about this work, though, Paul, was Schooling in America was kind of able to get an actual time log on remote learning from the parents. This is not to discredit middle and high school students, but I do think there are probably differences in self-reporting of students versus parents who were maybe able to observe them in a more controlled setting within the home support. So Paul, what did our results reveal about the amount of time students were spending on virtual learning after the transition during the spring?

Paul DiPerna: Yeah, so, yeah. Thanks for bringing this up, Mike. I mean, I think this is something that some other surveys have also looked at the amount of daily schoolwork that students were doing last spring, Education Next, they released their polling on COVID questions a few weeks ago. What they found, and also even with the American Institutes of Research, they did a survey of school districts and their expectations in terms of time that students should be doing, and we’re all lining up. What we found in our surveys, that there was a median response of 3.5 hours. So three and a half hours parents were reporting that their children were spending total on any given day that they were doing remote learning, and within that, we saw that about a quarter were actually doing at least five hours of schoolwork on a given day. And so that was pretty interesting.

Paul DiPerna: Ed Next, in they’re polling, and AIR, they also found around that three and a half hours to four hours, and they broke it out even further along some different demographics, but that seems to be a pretty solid finding even across different surveys. So that was one thing that we learned is that it was about three and a half hours, which is pretty significant, and then also a decent size proportion of students appeared to be doing what would be, back in olden times at the school building, the full day at home, five or more hours.

Drew Catt: If I can jump in real quick. I think that three and a half hour mark is really interesting. Again, I rely on the anecdotal context that I know. So my wife is a high school teacher, and they were all charged with producing 30 minutes of work for their students every day. They have one student resource time blocks, so you figure that seven blocks of 30 minutes each, that’s exactly three and a half hours. So that kind of really connects there, if you think about it that way, as well.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah, it’s great to hear that example and what you’ve seen through your wife’s experience in the local school district. I know thinking about our house, and so we have two young daughters, one who in the spring was in second grade and our other, our older daughter, was in fourth, and they had pretty different experiences, where our second grader was usually done by lunchtime. So on any given day probably was around that like three hour mark of total schoolwork time, and then for our older daughter, who’s in fourth grade, starting around 9:00, she would not be done at least until about 2:30-3:00, sometimes even longer, with breaks of course. I’m not trying to do anything too crazy, but there’s a little bit longer for her and she has different special needs, but I think that’s what some of the other polling found is that the older kids, they were spending some more time, or they tended to spend a little bit more time total schoolwork in a given day.

Another question that we asked was just about within that schoolwork, what percentage was actually synchronous or live real time with class, their teacher, an aid. What we found is that the median response was 20 percent. So current school parents, our sample of 805 current school parents, the median was 20 percent of that time was actually interacting live with the teacher, a class, and so forth. But what really stood out to me is that there was a 20 percent, almost one out of five parents, said that there was a zero real time interaction, and that really just stands out. We try to throw in the caution flag here for interpretation, but if you did extrapolate that out, that’s millions of kids who weren’t getting any live or real time interactions with teachers and with classmates. So that’s something that we were able to look at in our survey this time.

Mike Shaw: Yeah, and Paul I do wonder how much of that is that the opportunity wasn’t there, or that the opportunity wasn’t taken advantage of, like teacher had optional office hours that the students could do synchronous learning at least one-on-one that the student didn’t take advantage of versus structured the entire class is doing synchronous learning simultaneously.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah. That’s a really good point. And that’s something we should consider with the wording to be more explicit about that. And so, yeah, that’s a really good point. So it doesn’t necessarily have a direct implication of what was being offered for the student. It’s just it is and on its face, and we can interpret it and discuss it. So, yeah, that’s a really good point.

Mike Shaw: Drew, I really do appreciate the anecdotes and examples you’re able to provide from inside the classroom teacher certainly had a lot to juggle and coordinate with during the spring, and certainly looks like they will in the fall, as well. Parents, of course, also are going to have some juggling and multitasking concerns when it comes to their children’s education. We already discussed the risk-reward factors when it comes to the amount of parents living in a household with at least one at risk individual, at risk for complications from the virus, and you also saw a substantial amount of households maybe looking forward to some sort of in-person learning in the fall, but when it comes to that balance and the kind of balancing act between the risk of the virus and the possible interruptions of the virtual learning, we did ask parents about the various difficulties they experienced in the spring with that balancing act. So in looking ahead to the fall, Drew, what did we observe as far as this balancing act of children’s education with work and household matters as well as this overhanging cloud of the virus?

Drew Catt: Yeah. Thanks for that, Mike. I’d say before we jumped forward to the fall, let’s look at what parents were experiencing in the spring a tiny bit. So in terms of what they were concerned about, parents had the greatest level of concerns around their children getting exposed to the coronavirus with about half saying extremely or very concerned, little less than half being extremely or very concerned with their children falling behind academically. And then moving down the list, their child feeling isolated, thinking activities to keep them busy, and the fifth down that list is missing work or adjusting my work schedule.
Now when we’re looking at thinking about the current time and the future months, again parents were asked end of May, first couple days of June, thinking ahead about the pandemic in the coming months, how concerned are you about each of the following? And once again, it was children getting exposed to the coronavirus being at the top, with 51 percent being extremely or very concerned about that. So it really is the concern with that top item was about the same looking back as it is looking forward, and follow that it’s really the falling behind academically, and how did that schools may not have open on time or open only partially in the fall, and it’s a little more than two out of five parents that were very or extremely concerned about that.

We also asked how kind of likely is it that your child will be able to return to school in the next couple of months—August, September—as they have in previous years. And there were only about slightly less than one out of six parents that said that that was extremely likely, with another one on a five saying very likely, and a third same moderately. So that’s about one-third expressing some optimism that it would be like previous years. Then when we asked about a level of comfort sending their child to school, a little over one out of five saying that they were not at all comfortable, and another quarter saying they were only slightly comfortable. So for those of you keeping track at home, that’s pretty much almost half that were not at all or only slightly comfortable with their child physically going back to school this fall. And then when we’re thinking about where that might be happening, there kind of are some potential differences between where children were attending school in the spring and where their parents might send them in the fall.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah. And I think that’s really interesting. I mean, this is where timeline is so important, and just to reiterate that the dates that these folks were filling out surveys was at the end of May and beginning of June, and so with how things have been going over the last eight weeks in terms of spikes around the country, and it’s speculative, but I mean, it does make you wonder. This is almost like the most optimistic kind of scenario or impression, I think, we’re likely to get. I would speculate that asking these kinds of questions more recently, it would be even probably more pessimistic, especially in recent weeks with school districts changing course and their planning for reopening and back to school going from some version of in-person or hybrid. Now, a lot of districts are doing fully remote, especially the larger districts, the more urban districts appear to be going that way, and so I think the timing of all this and when these questions are being asked is so key.

For anyone who’s listening right now, I would just really encourage you all check out what others are doing in terms of the polling. There’s more polling right now, I think, on education than at any one time that I can remember. I know a lot of news media polling organizations are asking about reopening and back to school, and so I think, taking all those results together gives you a pretty robust picture of where the American public stands, where parents are in their concerns and their comfort levels, and then also there’s some really good polling being done with teachers over the last couple of months.

Drew Catt: Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see what the next wave really has to show. One other item that I want to bring up is we asked parents how likely they would be to enroll their child in a distance or e-learning program or option if it was provided by their child’s school or district, and more than one out of five were extremely likely, more than one on a five were very likely. So more than 40 percent of parents indicated that they would be extremely or very likely to choose remote learning, kind of tying back to when I was first talking about that. But really that’s kind of fascinating when you compare that to the one out of 10 that were not at all likely. So that means that only 10 percent of parents were for sure not going to take advantage of any distance or e-learning an opportunity, and this was back in, again, May, June. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the data come out to see how many parents do take advantage of that, assuming that districts release that information for the public and/or researchers to look into.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah. And just to follow that up, I have seen some reports where some districts, like here in Indiana where we live, and then even other districts around the country that are sharing some of the percentages of students who are choosing to do the remote learning as opposed to going in-person, and it seems to be fairly consistent around that like 10 to 15 percent that are opting for the remote option. So yeah, that’s something for us to keep an eye on. And who knows? I mean, this is early on, too, where most students aren’t going back to school at least for a few more weeks, or even into September now with some districts pushing back start dates. And so this is what we hope to look at in the next wave is to see how these numbers translate into behavior and actions of parents and how much of this roughly 40 percent who are very or extremely likely to choose remote learning, how does that actually materialize later this fall? So, yeah, that’s something for us to look out for.

Mike Shaw: Definitely. I think this discussion has been fascinating in shedding light on these aggregate results at a certain point in time, and Paul, I think you’ve done well illustrate that because of all the continued polling on education and pandemic related impacts of education, people’s opinions may be constantly changing, because the circumstances are constantly changing, and then that shows up in the aggregate results, certainly.

But these parents and their perceptions and the choices they’re ultimately going to have to make, which we hopefully will be able to measure come the fall, they’re also deeply personal decisions, and those personal decisions may be shaped by exterior factors, such as race and ethnicity. This is something we tried to look at pretty deeply in this first wave of 2020 SIA polling, in that observing the similarities and differences of parents’ experiences, hopes, fears, looking ahead, looking back split among racial backgrounds, and Paul, I know this is something Schooling in America as a project has focused on in the past. I believe, five years ago or so now there was a polling report under the Schooling in America umbrella, just looking at Latina perspectives on education, but it’s something that seemed especially pressing this year in the wake of the Black Lives Matter and related movements. So for each of you, and just to round out the results of this first section of wave one, I was wondering if we could spotlight some of the racial disparities that were observed in terms of COVID related educational interruptions.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah. Thanks, Mike. I mean, that is something that with every release of Schooling in America, we do like to try to report more and cast a spotlight on certain populations. And so, as you mentioned, with everything that’s occurred in the last couple of months with the protests and demonstrations around the country, the Black Lives Matter protests. And so, racial inequities, I think, are just top of mind, and so that’s something we just wanted to explore more with this release over the next few weeks for Schooling in America. One thing I should caution that the sample size, especially when we are reporting out the results for Black parents and Hispanic parents, those sample sizes differ quite a bit from the sample white school parents, and that’s just based on the natural draw and the process of fielding a nationally representative survey as we wait and make adjustments for Census Bureau statistics and so forth.

So, we’re talking roughly about 100 Black school parents, and it was about roughly a little more than 130 Hispanic school parents, but there are differences and there are at least, I think, suggestive differences that we picked up. And so in one example, looking at those expectations about returning to school, we saw that white school parents, they’re about roughly twice as optimistic as Black school parents, and then Latino parents were somewhere in between. So about 40 percent of white parents said either very extremely likely that their kids could go back to school like they have previous years, and black school parents it was about 20 percent, and Latinos were at about 30 percent. And so we see these differences, and some of these are not statistically significant because of the sample sizes involved, but at least I think they’re suggestive, and they’re signals for us to look at when we’re looking at other surveys who are breaking it out by race and ethnicity, and then we’re also thinking about for the next wave, trying to do some additional sampling to boost up those sample sizes so we can have more robust results and more reliability in our interpretations.

Comfort levels, also, there are some differences between white school parents. About 40 percent said they were either slightly or not at all comfortable. And it’s 20 percent, well, one out of five white school parents said not at all comfortable, which is fairly low compared to almost a third of black school parents who gave that same response saying that they were not at all comfortable. Drew, I don’t know if there’s something that you wanted to point out, too.

Drew Catt: Yeah, that was the main one with the 31 percent of black school parents being not at all comfortable, and that is different when really it’s about half when you’re combining the slightly comfortable and not at all comfortable. And then you see that that is kind of different, statistically significantly different than the white school parents. And when it comes to the option of e-learning, it’s about half of the black school parents and the Hispanic school parents that were extremely or very likely to enroll their child in an e-learning or distance learning opportunity if it was provided by their school or district, and those differences for the Hispanic compared to white, that is significant at the 95 percent level, and then the Black parents compared to white parents is significant at the 90 percent level. So that really is interesting, especially when going back and forth between the comfort level and the likelihood of choosing a remote learning, because you see the Latino school parents are somewhat similar and those saying not at all comfortable to the white population, but then they’re more like their Black parent counterparts when talking about likelihood of opting into remote learning.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah, and I think that question did stand out to me, and not only for some of these significant differences between the groups, but also just the levels. I mean, so just on its face with a 50, half of the Black school parents and half of the Latino parents in our survey said that they were very or extremely likely to opt for remote learning. I mean, that’s really high percentage. And even considering the bigger margin of error for those smaller sample sizes, I mean, that’s still a big, big percentage, and so I just think that that just is a signal for more exploration, more research. There are other organizations who are also breaking out as Education Next did with their poll. Some others have also done this in recent weeks, looking at these different racial differences and also the levels of these responses, too. That’s just something to keep our eye on as we go into back to school and re-openings and into the fall.

Drew Catt: And for those of you who have taken the time to dive into the lovely, large demographic tables that we typically have as appendices for Schooling in America, you know that we collect more than just race, ethnicity data. So I’m actually working on some separate posts, breaking out community type, income level. I’m looking at potentially at party ID, and also if there are any other specific things that anyone listening is interested in that you know that we have the question, but we don’t necessarily break it out in anything that you’re seeing, just reach out to us. We’d be more than happy to share any numbers or statistics with you.

Mike Shaw: I think that’s a great spot to end it, Drew, because you’re totally right. There’s more data and more information than we can distill in a quick conversation or even a very complete slide deck, but we do have more out there, and we’ll be releasing more on this wave one of the results. Look forward in the coming weeks to results from homeschooling. That was a focus area for this wave of Schooling in America, as well as typical gauges on K-12 education, education finance, and school choice. We’re really looking forward to sharing those results with everybody, and if you do need additional data broken down or have questions, you can always reach our team. That’s the research team. The email is research@edchoice.org.

With that, we do want to thank you for joining us on this episode of EdChoice Chats. If you have additional podcast ideas or inquiries, you can reach our podcast team at media@edchoice.org. I’d also love you to check out our newly-designed blog and multimedia site, ENGAGE. It’s ENGAGE by EdChoice. That’s edchoice.org/engage. And that’s where you’ll be able to find everything from our blogs about our Schooling in America series. We have one up now looking at the COVID-19 impacts and the racial disparities that tried to compare some of the other polling that’s been out there that Paul referenced. We also have podcasts and blogs out about our monthly polling tracker. That’s a state breakout and month over month public opinion tracker on various educational related topics, and of course your monthly legislative and state updates from our wonderful state team. So ENGAGE is really the place to be for all this multimedia content. Of course, our website, edchoice.org, is where you can find this first wave of results for Schooling in America.

Until next time, I’m Mike Shaw. Thank you for tuning in, and hope you have a safe and wonderful summer.