Ep. 297: Monthly Tracker – January 2022

February 10, 2022

In this episode, we share key takeaways from our January 2022 wave of polling as reported on our EdChoice Public Opinion Tracker.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, Director of National Research at EdChoice. And you are joining us for another edition of our Monthly Tracker Podcast. So, for those of you who are not familiar, we partner with Morning Consult and poll a nationally representative sample of Americans every month. We also poll a nationally representative sample of teachers every quarter, but we’re not talking about that this month. All of this information is available on our website, along with all of the cross-tabs, which is like all of the, if you want some of these findings broken down by different demographic groups, we also publish our full survey, all the questions we ask and in the order we ask them in complete transparency for everything that we’re doing.

But this month is an interesting one. We could call this one the Omicron variant. This poll was in the field from January 15th to 16th. We’ve polled 2,200 Americans with an over-sample of 700 school parents to make sure we have representative samples of both. I always think the Omicron variant could be a good ’80s sci-fi movie or perhaps a ’70s progressive rock band. I don’t know if that’s, it’s like.

John Kristof: 100%.

Mike McShane: And there’s 16-minute creation, yeah, with four types of synthesizers, we have the Omicron variant. It’s like, come in for the fog and laser light show.

John Kristof: Absolutely, wow.

Mike McShane: Anyway. So, joining me as always this week is my friend and colleague John Kristof, but we have a special guest this week as well. You’re used to hearing the two of us just pontificate about these things, but occasionally we like to bring in people who actually know what they’re talking about. And we have one of those people this week. We are joined by Emily Anne Gullickson, the founder and CEO of A for Arizona. Emily, it’s so great to have you on the podcast.

Emily Anne Gullickson: Thanks so much. Thrilled to be here.

Mike McShane: Well, look, before we get into talking about these polling results, for those listeners who may not be familiar, could you just explain a bit about what you and A for Arizona do?

Emily Anne Gullickson: Yeah. So, A for Arizona is a K12 advocacy organization here in the Grand Canyon state. And we really work every day to see the highest number of low-income students access highest quality schools or learning environments in the shortest amount of time. And we have existed for about eight years and work direct with entrepreneurial school principals and system leaders on the ground, running really effective models and succeeding in high poverty communities. And then, we translate what those roadblocks are and barriers into policy in order to help those successful models flourish and empower them to be able to serve more kids and families in their community.

Mike McShane: Amazing, awesome stuff. I know that we at EdChoice and y’all have been a wonderful positive relationship for some time now and so wonderful to look at the work that y’all do and great to have you on the podcast. So, I think we should dive in one of the first things that we’ve talked about on this podcast since we’ve been doing this polling, a big question we’ve asked is, are parents comfortable with their kids being in school? And from August of 2021 until this poll, which again was in the field from January 15th and 16th, we had seen an increase in the percentage of parents who said that they were comfortable with their kids going back to school. And we saw a decrease in those uncomfortable. John Kristof, those turned around this month. Could you maybe describe a little bit about what happened there and what you think about it?

John Kristof: Sure. So, for those who are not following along in their books at home, what we have seen over the last couple of months was about three out of four parents said they were at least somewhat comfortable with their children attending school in person right now. So, at the very beginning of the school year, we were fairly low, below 60%. That surely was almost entirely affected by the Delta variant going on around that time and concerns around that. It climbed very steadily after the beginning of the school year, kind of peaked at roughly 75% in November. And in January, we saw a decline of six percentage points in parents who are favorable right now for a total of 68%. So, a little over two-thirds.

What does that mean? It means that the gains that we’ve seen since maybe the middle of the first semester were kind of cut away through the Omicron variant. So, the question is, what does all that mean? It does mean that a handful of parents are much more concerned. A lot of it is due to safety and protection of the child. That’s kind of the most common response that we see among parents who are uncomfortable with their kids in school. They’ll point to safety issues and usually specifying COVID or worry that their school doesn’t have enough mitigation measures and things like that.

So, if you see a six-point decrease in parents who are comfortable and a seven-point increase in parents who are uncomfortable, parents are generally more concerned that their schools are just not able to keep their kids safe through the Omicron variant.

Now, the question is whether that is a lot or not, and this is going to be put into a very interesting context as we go through some of the other results that we talk about later, we usually would see a six to seven point swing in this very broad question, it’s very substantial, because broad questions actually have tended to be more consistent for us over time. So, this would normally be a very big swing, but we see some even bigger swings elsewhere that could possibly be more telling about how parents are feeling about Omicron than just this question, but it is an eyebrow-raiser.

Mike McShane: So, Emily Anne, I would love to know, I don’t think I knew before this, that Arizona was the Grand Canyon state. But now that I hear that, that certainly makes a lot of sense. But I’d love to know from your vantage point out there, as John brought up, this was the first time we’ve seen in a long time of a dip. We know that different regions in the country vary based on everything. What have you been seen out there as far as parents and how comfortable they are with in-person learning?

Emily Anne Gullickson: Yeah, we definitely saw a spike in Omicron cases here in January. But I think in regards to comfort, some schools have really been phenomenal about how they message safety protocols, what’s in place for kids and families, and also have enabled options for those families that do not feel safe to still engage in remote or virtual learning, while other students can attend in person. So, we haven’t necessarily had the same swing reactions we’ve seen in other states, where it’s sort of all or nothing, closed, open, no negotiations in between. So, I do think our comfort level is a bit higher.

Mike McShane: Yeah, I think that would make sense. That’s one of the things I think is an important thing when we look at the polling that we do, we’re looking at national averages here. So, there’s going to be, in as textured of a country as America is, we’re going to see lots of variation even between states, within states, all of those things.

Now, another interesting swing that we noticed this time around was around these questions that we’ve asked around masks and vaccines. So, generally speaking, these numbers have held pretty solid, as long as we’ve asked them. When we asked questions about teachers, other school employees, students, we’ve asked a question of should vaccines or masks be mandatory? Should they be encouraged, but non-mandatory? And should they be neither encouraged nor mandatory?

One of the things that really surprised me this month was that we saw increases pretty much across the board in the percentage of people saying that they think masks should be mandatory, but not really, maybe even slight decreases, but very close to one another in the percentage of people saying that vaccines should be mandatory. Normally, in the past, those things have kind of moved with one another, but we see a bit of divergence this year, Emily Anne, does this make any sense? I will be transparent here that when I look at these things, they don’t necessarily make a ton of sense to me. Do these numbers make any sense to you?

Emily Anne Gullickson: No. And we don’t really love mandates out here in the Wild West.

Mike McShane: Arizona, stop.

Emily Anne Gullickson: Yeah. No, very baffling.

Mike McShane: Yeah. Because like I said in the past, they’ve kind of gone together, but, John, do you have a hypothesis as to why there maybe going in one direction and not the other?

John Kristof: Yeah. So, here’s my loose working theory. It’s not even much of a theory, just kind of a narrative that I’m seeing here. So, at the beginning of the school year, as you said, these numbers have been fairly stable over time. And when we’ve seen any changes, it’s been fairly slight, always five percentage points or fewer swing every month, usually just a couple points. But at the beginning of the school year, if we were seeing changes, it was in vaccine favorability that was going up and mask mandate favorability going down as far as mandates go.

That’s what we saw at the beginning of the school year. And I think that’s because vaccines were still a relatively new thing for… I’ve even lost the timeline in my head. But at the beginning of the school year, kids were not vaccinated, younger kids were not vaccinated at the rate that they are now, because they just weren’t available then.

So, our relationship with vaccines was different, because we’re not maxing out the number of people who would be vaccinated. Whereas I think now, several months later, now that the vast majority of age groups can be vaccinated, I think there’s a sense of, “Well, everybody who’s going to get vaccinated has been vaccinated.” So, I think vaccines are just part of how we see life now, they’re less new. So, they’re a little bit more at the back of a lot of people’s minds, whether they should be or not is a different question. But I think that’s what it’s been.

Whereas, masks is a little bit more of a variable thing, if you will. Like I can stop my habit of wearing a mask regularly if I feel things are safe and I don’t need it and I can put the mask back on as a habit, if I feel things are getting worse again. So, I might have opinions about how other people should behave based on how safe I think it is for them to do X, Y, or Z.

And as Omicron is raging a little bit more and it is affecting unvaccinated people more, but there’s still a sense of trying to stop the spread as much as possible. There would be an increase in people saying, “Hey, we need to bring this habit back.” I would absolutely be in favor of keeping kids safe, keeping teachers safe, keeping various employees safe. And I think the best way we could do that is through putting this habit back in place.

Emily Anne Gullickson: I do want to jump in here. Some of our best school leaders on the ground definitely have been very clear with families like, “While masks are optional, we strongly encourage you and your child to wear them on campus, because we want to prioritize maximum learning time and here’s what we’re seeing from data.” And that, in areas where the Omicron numbers have been spiked, we’ve definitely seen folks jumping at it, but again, the mandatory mask mandate has not really gone over well here in Arizona.

Mike McShane: So, another number that really stood out to me, and this is where Emily Anne, I think, we’re going to be relying on you for some optimism. So, I’m setting you up now. We’re relying on you for some optimism.

Emily Anne Gullickson: No pressure, no pressure.

Mike McShane: Because the number that I’m about to say is a huge bummer. We asked the question of school parents, in the last month, have any of your children quarantined because of the COVID-19 outbreak? And then, we asked them how disruptive has quarantining been to their child’s education. And when this poll was in the field from January 15th to 16th, 37% of parents said that their child had to, at least one of their children, had to quarantine in the last year. Of those parents, 43% of them described it as very disruptive and 39% said that it was somewhat disruptive. Only if you put the two not disruptive together, they’re only like 18% said it wasn’t disruptive.

I mean, if we think about the number of school kids that there are in America, 37%, even if that’s off a few points because whatever, that has so many kids missing learning time. Now, y’all at A for Arizona are trying to find and surface solutions to fix learning loss and poor education in general. Are there folks out there that are doing good stuff to try and help catch kids up, both from the learning loss that they’ve experienced throughout this pandemic, but as we’re seeing now, this sort of episodic kids are losing time, is there some hope for optimism? Are there cool entrepreneurs or school leaders out there trying to fix this devastating learning loss?

Emily Anne Gullickson: There are, which is hopeful. Unfortunately-

Mike McShane: Wonderful.

Emily Anne Gullickson: … it’s not universal yet. But we seated through our Expansion & Innovation Fund a brilliant cohort of leaders that adopted the Swivl robots. There’s other devices like this, where basically it creates a 3D classroom experience. So, kids that are remote are live on screen, they’re engaged, they can shout answers, they can hear their peers, they get a 360-degree view of the classroom. So, that’s really been cutting-edge technology that’s pretty low cost and has really enhanced the ability to reach students in quarantine, especially who are asymptomatic or whose siblings have it and they’re just staying remote until they get a negative test.

Also, students that are pretty mobile, being able to still access their teacher and their coursework, or even being able to record those lessons and then get them to parents, so that students can catch up. We’ve got a lot of innovators and entrepreneurs in the classrooms and also leading schools that really have said, “It’s not optional for us to not think outside the box and make sure kids are being served.” But unfortunately they probably represent that 18% on your chart about, that it’s not as disruptive. So, in places where we have options, where you have multiple models and families can move with their feet or go elsewhere, they’ve really stayed cutting-edge on how can we best serve our families and community to make sure that they want to stay and remain a part of our great school system.

Mike McShane: So, John, we’re talking innovation, we’re talking new and different things. Obviously, on this podcast, we’ve talked about hybrid homeschooling before, we’ve asked this question after the pandemic, if given the option, what would you like your kids’ school week to look like? One of the things I thought was really interesting this month, which we haven’t necessarily seen, I think, before, we saw growth in the percentages of parents who want either full-time homeschooling or full-time traditional five-day-a-week schooling. But the actual parts of folks saying that they would like some combination of the two seem to decline a small bit and be eaten up by those numbers.

I mean, in this iteration, 17% of parents said that they would like to homeschool full-time, which is up three points from the month before and up a few more points from various times that we’ve done it. At the same time, I think this is the first time that full-time traditional schooling has broached 40%. So, it was up to 41%. So, again, still a substantial group in the middle saying they’d like some kind of hybrid. But the growth of those two polls, how do you think about that?

John Kristof: That is an interesting question. This is a question where it is somewhat difficult to track trends over time and pick up patterns, because it’s similar to the question about mandates. The swings are kind of small and gradual. The biggest takeaway for me, I mean, definitely is 17% of parents saying that their ideal school week would involve their kids being at home full-time, which is pretty wild. And one of those things that you would just never expect to see in 2019. I would like to see some more months through February, through March, before I make any kind of conclusions about where hybrid homeschooling is going, because altogether it’s still only a four-point decline in parents whose ideal school week would involve one to four days at home, which means there’s still a very sizable amount of parents who are still thinking like, “Oh, now that you mentioned it, if there is an option to do a little bit of both, I think that would work out really well.”

Because I think there are a lot of parents who see some benefit to their kids going to a specifically structured school environment, whether they’ve been able to choose that specific environment or not. And they see some benefit to the flexibility and the kind of relationship that their kids can have through the family and through their school while they’re at home. So, a mild decline, I’m not too concerned about making any kind of conclusions about it. And I think the most important takeaway is that less than half of parents, only like two out of five parents, say their ideal school week involves the kids being at school five days of the week.

Mike McShane: Yeah. Emily Anne, have you been seeing any cool stuff in this space, either in the full-time homeschooling or in that hybrid space?

Emily Anne Gullickson: Yeah. Micro-schools are showing huge demand both public and private models out here, but I’m really intrigued by the more than 50% of district parents being open to not having their students 100% of the time in those four walls of the brick and mortar school. Last year, Arizona led the country in a robust seat time flexibility and innovation law. And it really enables schools to think differently around when and where and how learning occurs.

And one of the things that’s exciting there is the rural and remote leaders are jumping at this opportunity to think differently about the usual bell schedule, embracing community assets. The fact that kids could get direct instruction from their teacher in the morning and then go learn out of a micro-school or sort of community learning hub in the afternoon, not necessarily at home, but really embracing more of that remote learning and leveraging community assets as well.

So, I think that’s the number that’s most exciting about this data that you just got access to, because we really have seen that 100% of learning does not have to happen at school. And how can we empower our leaders on the ground, give them permission to think differently about what models might look like, that would actually work better for more students.

Mike McShane: So, in another set of questions, this was a new and probably a one-off, because we were able to put this poll in the field when the Omicron variant was kind of revving up. So, we asked some of these specific questions. I don’t know if we’re going to ask these again, but I thought we captured a fascinating moment in time. So, right at this time, I mean, I think I was trying to look at the numbers. I really think that the Omicron peak was right around when this poll was in the field. It might have been a day or two before, or day or two after. So, this was really in the teeth of it.

And there was debate and discussion around the country. Kids were coming back from winter break, should they return to remote learning? Should it be in person? And there was obviously all the debate about Omicron and its severity and its transmissibility and yada, yada, yada, all of that sort of stuff.

And there were a couple high profile cases across the country where school districts or teachers’ unions pushing school districts went remote. This was obviously very controversial. So, we were, with Morning Consult, able to ask a couple, I think, really interesting questions to try and understand both what the general public and what school parents thought about these decisions.

So, we actually, in a first kind of question, Morning Consult has this tool of looking at buzz, what they call buzz, which is like media coverage. So, we asked parents and actually all adults as well. Have you seen, read or heard anything related to the Chicago Teachers’ Union stopping in-person learning in the school district? This was like on the Nightly News at the time. So, we’re like, let’s talk about Chicago in specific.

And then, we also said, have you seen, read or heard anything related to just, we said, teachers’ unions in general? Interestingly, amongst all adults, 42% said that they had heard about this Chicago Teachers’ Union, this fight that was taking at that place. And amongst school parents, it was 48%. And then when we talked about teachers’ unions in general, 39% said they had seen something about it. And 42% of parents said that they did.

And interestingly, we then ask a question, okay, now that have you heard about it, has it been positive? Has it been negative? Do you support it? And interestingly, amongst all Americans and amongst school parents, either the Chicago question or the general teachers’ union questions, those who supported it were substantially larger number than those who opposed it. And to be honest, based on the media coverage and what I saw, that is not the number that I expected, I will be the first person to say, I would have thought that it would’ve been flipped, that many more people would’ve opposed those moves than supported them. John, I may throw it to you first. Were you surprised like I was? And if so, how do you kind of make sense of those numbers?

John Kristof: I do find it very interesting and I’ve put a not insignificant amount of time as to coming up with a good narrative for why these numbers exist, as well as some of the numbers that we’ve talked about right now. So, I could imagine, in a vacuum, told me a few months ago, “Hey, there’s going to be this new variant. There’s going to be a lot of cases. There are going to be schools that are considering shutting down. And most people are supportive of that.” I’d be like, “Okay, I can envision a world where that happens.”

What I would have trouble envisioning is a world where 68% of parents were comfortable with their kids returning to school. And most parents overwhelmingly stating that when their child was quarantined, have been out of school, it was very disruptive to their education. And still, the vast majority of parents want their kids in school in a regular schooling environment at least one day of the week.

Also, given those opinions about how Omicron affects their feelings about how safe classrooms are and how they feel about remote learning broadly speaking across the total population and still there’s these levels of support for both the Chicago union and unions in general closing school, returning to remote learning during the Omicron variant.

I don’t know if this connects back to how popular teachers are in people’s minds, where there could be some priming here, where just by us shaping the question of, as we should, because we’re informing people about the situation, “Hey, this is it. Have you heard about it? Okay, well, it is happening. What do you think about it?” When people read that teachers are, and most people, when they see teachers’ unions, they think of teachers, teachers are on the forefront of this, and people are like, “Well, if the tea teachers need this to feel safe, that’s very important, because we like teachers and we need teachers.” So, I don’t know if that effect is so strong that it supersedes these other questions that I mentioned before, feelings of comfort, feelings of disruptiveness and quarantining and things like that. That’s the best idea I have right now. It is a very interesting question.

Mike McShane: Yeah. They crosscut in different ways and, yeah, I think you made as good a sense of it as I could. There’s a lot going on there. Emily Anne, can you shed any light on this conundrum?

Emily Anne Gullickson: I wish I could, but it’s very baffling. So, here we definitely had very few schools stay remote after winter break. Governor Ducey launched an opportunity to learn program for families that if their school closed down for even one day, they could access additional supports to go towards tutoring, transportation to another school, pathways to get outside enrichment activities. And I think that that motivated schools that were considering going remote to at least have an option of in-person learning for those families that wanted it. So, again, here we’ve really embraced parental choice even within the setting. If you feel most comfortable remote, whether it’s through the whole year or just for this semester, so be it. If you have to quarantine, how can we provide options? And that has seemed to largely work well after maneuvering this for the last three school years.

John Kristof: Yeah. One more thing that I wanted to mention about this, that contradicts maybe a lot of particular media coverage that at least I have seen and some assumptions that you might have with that. The Chicago Teachers’ Union and the vast, vast majority of teachers’ unions in the country serve public school students. So, district school families as they’re designated in our survey. It’s worth noting that district school parents were actually the least supportive of teachers’ unions influencing closing and returning to a remote learning environment. They were the least supportive.

So, out of charter school, homeschool, private school, district school, district school parents opposed it, or were the least supportive. Still a majority, at 59%, but that’s less than their counterparts. Charter school parents and homeschool parents were pretty much on par with most supportive at 68%, 69%. Homeschool parents were the most intensely strong supporters, if you will, at 42% strongly supporting schools closing down and shifting to a remote learning environment, which could actually say something about how a lot of homeschool parents see a benefit of homeschooling, perhaps as a safety measure, if you will.

But I just thought that was worth noting, because I think there’s often assumption that, at least in some of the media coverage that I see about how district school parents might have felt about this, just with political assumptions when it comes to school choice. Yeah, I just thought that was worth noting when they were actually the least supportive of all the parent groups we surveyed.

Mike McShane: No, for sure. And I wonder if some of that too is about just trust in their teachers or administrators, that folks might have their own opinions about safety, or their own opinions, but they generally defer. So, if their child’s teacher says, “Hey, we need to go remote for X, Y, and Z reason,” that they say, “Oh, okay, fair enough. That might not have been my first choice, but if that’s what the group of folks are saying.” Again, I’m not trying to make a judgmental statement of whether they should or they shouldn’t or whether that’s right or whether that’s wrong. But I think some explanation of saying, “Oh, if the teachers have gotten together and said that they think this is the right thing to do, we’re going to support them in that.”

John Kristof: That’s a pretty good point, honestly, because one of the questions that we do ask is how much do you trust the following a bunch of different types of people, how much do you trust them to make good decisions about education? And when we ask parents, teachers consistently are the top-rated group. Most recently, it was 87% of parents support teachers to make good decisions about education, which exceeds parents themselves at, what is this, 86%. Okay. So, it’s one percentage points difference, still exceeds them, but school principals and school boards still receive majority support as well. So, that’s a good point. There could just be some deference that some people have of trusting education decision-makers.

Mike McShane: Well, so now those were some kind of episodic questions that we asked and we’ll maybe close here on a couple of these questions we’ve been asking for a long time. And one of the ones, we asked a classic survey question, do you think schools are on the right track or wrong track? And interestingly, while it had been trending up a bit in the last couple of months, I should say sort of back-to-school time to maybe November-ish, it trended up a little bit, both parents talking about their local school district, the state and the nation. Since November, we’ve seen a down tick, definitely. And while it’s not as low as it had been at various other points in the pandemic, it seems like folks are maybe starting to think or few are starting to think that it’s going in the right direction.

So, of local school districts, only about 54% of parents say that they’re going in the right direction. So, again, it’s over 50, but that still means a lot of people think that schools are on the wrong track. So, Emily Anne, when you’re talking to folks about educational innovation, about all that, I would love to know, is this a motivating factor they say, “We think education’s on the wrong track. We think our local school districts are on the wrong track and that’s why we need to do something better.” Do they say, “Schools are good, but I have a unique need for my child, or we understand that children have unique needs.” I would just love to know as someone who’s really working in this space, how you see the landscape.

Emily Anne Gullickson: So, this national data is very aligned with the polling we recently did, that Arizona families are not giving very high scores for local schools. We view that as optimistic, because we also have seen national data and focus groups that mirror this about wanting bold actions taken, that folks do want us re-imagining what schooling looks like, and that they don’t want incremental change, because incremental change isn’t happening.

And I think the biggest challenge there is that we have really entrepreneurial-minded leaders on the ground that are absolutely game to rethink school models and deliver for what family is are hungry for. And then, we also have some that are just really resistant to change and are comfortable with what they know school to look like. It’s very familiar to what schooling looked like when they were in the classroom. And that’s where that tension lies. But we find this data to be optimistic, because it’s created a new sense of urgency and really a catalyst for innovation and open-mindedness to new kinds of models or experiences for our youth and also recognizing community and others where students can engage in learning. That’s not just in the four walls of the school building.

Mike McShane: That’s great. Again, I really appreciate your optimism. This is wonderful. This is helpful.

Emily Anne Gullickson: I’m an eternal optimist and that is former superintendent Lisa Keegan’s fault, because she mentored me. So, she instilled it to see the bright spots.

Mike McShane: Well, look, I can think of no better place to end this podcast than on at note. So, Emily Anne, thank you so much for joining us. John, appreciate your insights as always and your thoughtfulness and research. For everyone who’s listening, again, you can always head to our website, edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com, where we have a wonderful PowerPoint presentation, sometimes we say in this podcast, we probably did today, the slides, because they put together these beautiful slides that explain everything to everyone.

Obviously, we covered just a fraction of the stuff that’s in the poll. We also have the cross-tabs and all of that information. edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com. And I always want to give a shout out, Jacob Vinson, who edits all of this stuff. And when I start and stop and have to go again, he makes me sound much more coherent. So, thank you, Jacob, for everything that you’re doing. Thanks, everybody, for listening. And I look forward to chatting with all of you again on another addition of EdChoice Chats.