August traditionally has been a month where routine reasserted itself with students and teachers heading back to school. But in this year that is unlike any other, a routine approach to going back to school will not serve our K-12 students and their families well. 

The spring surprise of COVID-19 raised many questions and uncertainties in education. To contribute to our understanding of what parents are thinking about education during the pandemic, SCORE conducted two polls – one last spring and one just last week.

The feedback from parents illuminates what matters about going back to school this month: We must prioritize health and learning in school reopening plans, and we must give parents options – good options – so they can choose a learning format that will work well for their child and their family.

The survey we commissioned was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies online with a sample of 300 parents of children in public school. These are some of the key poll findings:

  • Parents are worried about the long-term effects of the school shutdowns, a view that has shifted sharply from the spring poll. Now just under two-thirds of parents agree they are concerned about their children falling behind academically, double the percentage from the spring survey. More than half are concerned about their children falling behind socially and developmentally, again about double the percentage in April. These concerns are evident in another answer where 61 percent of parents said Tennessee should conduct statewide assessment in the spring as a valuable measure of how much students have learned. Put together, these responses highlight how Tennessee parents are perceiving the impacts of the disruption in in-person schooling.
  • Six out of ten parents say they want at least some in-person schooling for their students this year. When asked to choose the best learning option for their child, Tennessee parents were evenly split with 27 percent choosing in-person classes, 33 percent choosing a hybrid of remote and in-person instruction, and 38 percent opting for remote learning. These results show that either-or plans – either all in the classroom or all remote – won’t serve all families well. Parents want, and deserve, a range of choices to find one that fits the needs of their children and their families.
  • Parents see quality differences in the learning options. Only one in five parents thinks remote learning is better for their child’s education, while twice as many think it is worse. These answers stress that high expectations and high-quality teaching and instructional materials are vital to the success of every learning platform.
  • Parents are concerned about the health threat of the pandemic with a clear majority saying they think the worst is yet to come and they personally are worried about someone in their family becoming infected. These findings mean that school plans for reopening must be transparent about how they are accounting for safety for students and staff and need to be heavily informed by local public health experts. The findings also show parent support for learning options that allow them to accommodate family health needs.

Last spring, with practically no notice and no time to draw up plans, Tennessee educators adopted a “whatever it takes” attitude in order to teach – and many times feed – children in new ways. Their work was tireless and courageous.

But with hindsight, parents and educators are seeing that learning may have taken a back seat to safety during last spring’s crisis. Early results from national research have found that remote instruction resulted in students spending much less time on learning and only a small portion of that reduced time in live virtual learning with their teacher. Students noticed. A Youth Truth survey of students in grades 5-12 reported that only half said they got remote assignments that really helped them learn.

At SCORE we work with educators every day, and I can assure you that as much as our teachers and school and district leaders would like to see a return to routines this month, they realize that these extraordinary times require continued extraordinary responses.  The SCORE poll of Tennessee parents underscores how much they value public education and innovative and responsive approaches to back to school this year.

David Mansouri is president and CEO of SCORE

Read more about back to school in Tennessee: