Back to school? 1 in 5 teachers are unlikely to return to reopened classrooms this fall, poll says

Susan Page USA TODAY

May 27, 2020

Most Americans expect schools to reopen in the fall, but a stunning number of teachers and students may not be there.

In an exclusive USA TODAY/Ipsos poll, 1 in 5 teachers say they are unlikely to go back to school if their classrooms reopen in the fall, a potential massive wave of resignations. While most teachers report working more than usual, nearly two-thirds say they haven’t been able to properly do their jobs in an educational system upended by the coronavirus. 

A separate poll of parents with at least one child in grades K-12 finds that 6in 10 say they would be likely to pursue at-home learning options instead of sending back their children this fall. Nearly a third of parents, 30%, say they are “very likely” to do that. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has recast education in the United States, prompting almost every district to send their students home and hastily adopt distance learning to close out the school year that is now ending. Those disruptions are guaranteed to reverberate into the new school year and beyond, especially for teachers who have been thrust into new roles that most say they weren’t well-trained to fill. 

The surveys underscore how concerns about the coronavirus will complicate efforts to resume daily routines in American life, from work to leisure to commerce, at least until a vaccine is widely available.

“I’m on a committee with my district talking about the what-ifs, because we don’t have answers on what is going to happen,” said J.W. White, 47, a middle school teacher from Fort Worth who was among those surveyed. “The expectation of parents and society is we’re sending our children to be educated in a safe environment, and how we’re going to provide that safe environment is completely unknown.”

What schools will look like when they reopen:Scheduled days home, more online learning, lots of hand-washing

The challenges in the past few months have sometimes been overwhelming, the language arts teacher said in a follow-up interview. “I feel very disconnected from my students,” she said, “and I feel like they’re falling behind.”

To explore the views of teachers and parents, USA TODAY and Ipsos conducted parallel online polls May 18-21. In one, 505 teachers of kindergarten through high school were surveyed. The other national survey polled 403 parents of a K-12 child.Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.

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The credibility intervals, akin to a margin of error, are plus or minus 5 percentage points for the survey of teachers and 5.6 points for the survey of parents with school-aged children. 

“As our world has changed, almost everything we do has changed, including how we view and approach education,” Cliff Young, president of Ipsos, said. “Though Americans are optimistic about a return to in-person learning, there is angst among teachers, parents and America at large about how to keep our schools safe if the virus isn’t fully contained.”

Among key findings: 

Teachers are struggling

Almost all of them, 83%, say they are having a harder time doing their job right now, and two-thirds say they have had to work more than usual. Two-thirds also say they haven’t been able to do their job properly since starting to teach remotely, a task that most say they hadn’t been prepared well by the district to do.

The newest teachers, those who have been on the job for five years or less, struggled the most with distance teaching; 6 in 10 said they hadn’t been trained well for the task. The oldest teachers had the most difficulty dealing with technology. Among teachers 55 and older, 1 in 4 said it hasn’t been easy for them to use the technology required. 

Parents recognize how hard teachers are working. Seven in 10 say teachers are “working harder now than they ever have.”

Children’s progress is in peril

Three-fourths of teachers say having to rely on distance learning is making their students fall behind in their classwork, although most also predict that they will eventually be able to make up lost ground. By a sweeping margin, 6-1, teachers say they are worried about their students right now; half of teachers are “very” worried.

Parents are also worried about their children, of course, but at lower levels, by less than 2-1. Parents are much less likely than teachers to say that their children are now falling behind; 46% of parents say that, compared with 76% of teachers.

Both parents and teachers acknowledge how difficult it has been for the other group to support distance learning. A 52% majority of parents say teachers have struggled; 85% of teachers say parents have struggled.

Technology is working for most

Almost all parents say their children have access to reliable internet service at home that allows them to study; just 3% say they don’t. What’s more, 86% of parents say their children have the software and equipment they need; 10% say they don’t. Generally, parents report that the technology has been easy to use.

However, lower-income families were much more likely to face hurdles in access to technology. Nearly 1 in 5 of those in households with annual income of less than $50,000 a year said their children lacked necessary software and equipment for online learning.

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Getting a vaccine is seen as critical 

A significant share of parents and teachers, about four in 10, oppose returning to the classroom before there is a coronavirus vaccine. (Slightly more support returning to school without a vaccine, but in each case less than a majority.) 

That day isn’t close. The most optimistic predictions say a vaccine might be developed by the end of the year; the less optimistic ones say it may take well into next year or even longer. 

There’s a search for solutions  

Roughly two-thirds of teachers and of parents support the idea of returning to the classroom for two or three days a week, and using distance learning the other days. About two-thirds of both groups also endorse having teachers considered at high risk for the illness continue to teach on-line, while teachers at low risk teach in person. 

Parents and teachers showed more of a split on the idea of extending the school year, starting classes earlier in the summer and continuing into the next summer. Parents were inclined to support the idea, 47%-36%. Teachers opposed it, 57%-34%.

Another divide: 40% of parents say public-school teachers are paid fairly. Just 24% of teachers agree. 

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Social distancing at school? Good luck with that

Teachers are ready for changes in the school routine next fall. Nearly 8 in 10 teachers say they would be likely to wear a mask while teaching, and nearly 6 in 10 say they are likely to work longer hours. But nearly 9 in 10 warn that they foresee difficulties in enforcing social distancing among their students.

Parents agree. Seven in 10 would ask their child to wear a mask at school, but more than two-thirds say their child would find it hard to comply with social distancing.

“Having to be 6 feet apart is difficult for adults, and it’s even more difficult for kids,” said Andrea Rodriquez, 23, a Pittsburgh elementary-school teacher who works with young children who are learning English as a second language. That’s been difficult to do without personal interaction. 

“We try to do our best, but it’s not the same when they are in school so we can know that they’re understanding.” she said. The change was so abrupt, and teachers are still trying to figure out how to make it work. “One week we were working and the other week everything changed. Nobody knew it would happen, what tools to use. We have learned on the way.”

If schools reopen this fall, nearly 1 in 5 teachers surveyed said they weren’t likely to return to teaching. Among teachers 55 and older, those with the most experience, one in four said they probably wouldn’t return.

Andy Brown, 43, who teaches at a rural high school in Mantua, Ohio, says after 20 years on the job he is reconsidering whether to return. “For the first time … these last three months have felt like I’ve been doing a job, doing this to earn a paycheck,” he said. “The engagement level with the students hasn’t been there, and that’s the reason I got into this career – the interaction and the engagement and the seeing and feeling their excitement.” 

His cross-curriculum class, tracing the environmental history of the United States, had been working on a two-year project to build an aquaponic greenhouse. The certificate of occupancy for the new building had been granted the day before the school district shut down.

There are qualms among parents as well. If classrooms reopen this fall, parents by 59%-36% say they would be likely to pursue at-home options, such as an online classes or home schooling. By double digits, men were more likely than women to consider pursuing those alternatives. Those with lower household incomes were more interested than those with higher incomes, and racial minorities were more interested than whites.

Like it or not, parents and teachers agreed on this: Schools are likely to reopen in the fall. Sixty-three percent of parents and 65% of teachers called that very or somewhat likely. 

Despite the challenges of the moment, teachers’ commitment to their jobs seems to have been strengthened, not shaken. In a USA TODAY/Ipsos poll of teachers in January 2019, 92% said they loved their jobs; now 90% do, not a statistically significant drop. Now nearly half, 48%, say they have thought about leaving their job as a teacher. But that’s a decline from last year, when a 54% majority had thought about it.

What’s more, 77% now say if they could pick a career all over again, they would still decide to be a teacher – a tick up from the 73% who expressed that view last year, before the pandemic began.

Sara Waugh, 37, who teaches computer skills at a high school in Omaha, spent the last week of the school year in the district’s mandatory training on how to teach online, so they can be better prepared for that possibility in the fall. The number of coronavirus cases is continuing to rise in the community, in part because of outbreaks at local meat-packing plants. “We have no idea what’s going to go on in the fall,” she said. “I can’t even speculate. I’ve heard a hundred different rumors.”

She’ll be there no matter what, she said. “I love what I do and I feel like what I do can be adapted to a remote learning environment,” she said, perhaps more easily than subjects like English or science. “I feel like it can be done.”


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