Worries about schools during the pandemic have shifted sharply since last summer, with a majority of people surveyed in the U.S. now saying they are more concerned about the academic, emotional and economic harm of keeping classrooms closed than the risk of spreading the potentially deadly coronavirus.
The percentage of Americans who say the biggest consideration in reopening schools should be the possibility that students will fall behind academically without in-person instruction has jumped from 48% last July to 61% this month, according to a new Pew Research Center survey published Wednesday.
“Americans are increasingly concerned about the effect of virtual learning on academic progress,” said Juliana Horowitz, author of the center’s report on the online survey of 10,121 U.S. adults conducted Feb. 16-21.
The survey found the percentage who say the top consideration should be the risk of teachers getting or spreading the virus fell from 60% last July to 48% this month, and those who cited the risk of students catching or transmitting it fell from 61% to 45%.
However, a majority of U.S. adults — 59% — say K-12 schools not currently open for in-person instruction shouldn’t reopen until all teachers who want the coronavirus vaccine have received it, while 40% say they should reopen as soon as possible, even if many teachers who want the vaccine haven’t received the shots.
The survey was conducted just after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated guidance for reopening schools that indicated they can reopen safely even in communities with widespread infections and without teachers being vaccinated.
Although the top concern is learning loss from the remote online “distance learning” that has been substituted for in-class instruction across country since the pandemic prompted school closures last spring, 54% also cited students’ emotional well-being and parents’ ability to work outside the home.
The survey also found that as was the case last summer, Black, Hispanic and Asian adults are more likely than White adults to say that the risks to teachers and students of getting or spreading the coronavirus should be given top consideration in deciding whether to reopen schools.
Lower-income adults are more likely than those with middle or upper incomes to say the same, as are Democrats compared with Republicans.
While majorities of White (65%) and Hispanic (60%) adults say learning loss is a top concern, 49% of Black adults say the same. Majorities of Whites (58%) and Hispanics (53%) also cite harm from school closures to students’ emotional well-being, compared to 44% of Blacks.
Majorities of both Republicans and Republican-leaning voters and Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters say academic harm from remote instruction is a leading concern. But that sentiment is far stronger among Republicans and Republican-leaners (76%) than Democrats and Democratic-leaners (51%).
But while most Republicans and Republican leaners (65%) also cite concerns about students’ emotional well-being, a minority of Democrats and Democratic leaners (46%) share that view.
Nearly eight in 10 Democrats (79%) say schools should wait to reopen until all teachers who want the coronavirus vaccine have received it, while almost two-thirds of Republicans (65%) say schools should reopen as soon as possible even if many teachers haven’t received it.
The survey involved both parents and people without children. But Horowitz found that the views on reopening schools don’t vary significantly between those who have children enrolled in elementary, middle or high school and those who don’t.