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Local parents divided over in-person learning, WPRI 12 survey finds

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – There’s a divide among parents when it comes to the question of whether they are comfortable with sending their children back to in-person learning this fall, according to a new WPRI 12 survey.  

The survey this month of 111 local parents showed 54% of respondents living in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts were uncomfortable with in-person learning compared to 46% who said they were comfortable with the idea.

While the 111 parents are too few to represent a statistically significant sample that would be used for a traditional public opinion poll, their opinions do shed light on how families are feeling as they prepare for a new school year amid an ongoing pandemic.

Alison Bouley, a Woonsocket parent, would like to see her child return to school, but has concerns about what will happen if a teacher gets sick.

“Whether it’s COVID or something completely unrelated to COVID, who is going to be covering the classroom?” Bouley said. “Who is going to be teaching the children? Do they have enough substitute teachers?”

The uneasiness among parents comes at the same time local and state education officials are scrambling to come up with learning plans that are safe for students, families and educators during a pandemic caused by a virus that spreads best when people gather.  

Despite that ongoing efforts, about half of respondents – 51% – said they were not confident with their district’s ability to open safely, while 34% said they were somewhat confident and 15% said they were very confident.  

The WPRI 12 survey was conducted by the research firm Research and Analysis Media, which interviewed parents living in Rhode Island and Bristol County, Mass., from Aug. 12 to 15.

The majority lived in Rhode Island where the state’s Department of Education has delayed the start of school for two weeks to give educators more time to prepare. The department is reviewing district plans that include three separate strategies: all in-person learning, all distance learning and a hybrid of in-person and distance learning.

When asked specifically about the different learning plans, about 38% of survey respondents said they would send their child back to in-person learning, while another 38% said they would opt for distance learning if offered. The rest said they were unsure.

In addition to offering a window into how parents are feeling about back-to-school overall, a closer examination of the survey results also showed a socioeconomic divide among respondents.

For example, married parents preferred in-person learning while unmarried parents preferred distance learning. Two-thirds of respondents with household incomes of less than $25,000 per year felt uncomfortable about in-person learning, while 76% of respondents making more than $150,000 per year supported the idea.

For homeowners and people living in detached homes, 65% of respondents said they felt comfortable with in-person learning. For renters, 93% of respondents said they were uncomfortable with in-person learning. (Fewer renters than homeowners responded to the survey.)

COVID-19 has been especially problematic in densely populated neighborhoods with multifamily homes, as the disease has proven to spread quickly among families living in close quarters.

Providence and Central Falls, both communities with relatively high levels of multifamily homes, are currently the only two communities that would not be allowed to reopen in-person learning under state guidelines because the rate of new cases remains stubbornly high.

In addition to broader questions about learning plans, parents were also asked about transportation, which is among the many challenges facing districts. For several weeks, families and administrators have raised concerns about the safety of busing.

About 61% of survey respondents said they would drive their own children to school. Another 30% said they would require a bus, and 9% said they weren’t sure.

In response to a question about managing schedules at-home if school is virtual this fall, 71% of parents said they would have the work flexibility or access to childcare necessary to make it work. Another 20% said they did not, while 9% were unsure.

For Chris Brosco, an East Providence resident raising his middle-school aged granddaughter, he’s concerned about what impact the disruptions in education could have long-term on students.

“How many quarters will it take for them to get caught up?” he said.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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