Commentary: Delaware parent survey: Remote learning stressful, return to class worrisome

By Matt Amis

As Delaware and the nation inch closer to back-to-school time, local parents say they’re concerned for the health and safety of their children due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a survey conducted by Rodel and the Delaware Readiness Teams, more than 1,000 Delaware parents shared their thoughts on COVID-19, including appraisals of the just-concluded spring semester, as well as their concerns about returning to classrooms in the fall. Parents weighed in on topics ranging from child care to health screenings to economic stress.

This summer, working groups convened by Gov. John Carney and Secretary of Education Susan Bunting will release recommendations for reopening Delaware schools in remote, in-person or hybrid formats. Parents, meanwhile, said some of their biggest concerns for back-to-school include potential exposure to COVID-19, children grappling with guidelines for social distancing and masks, and a lack of socialization for children, as well as balancing work and child care responsibilities.

When asked what measures would make them feel more comfortable before sending their child(ren) to child care, camp or school, Delaware parents selected:

• Alerts for positive COVID-19 cases (85%).

• Daily cleaning routines (84%).

• Limiting group/classroom size (71%).

• Temperature checks and screenings (67%).

• Publicly available plans for instruction and services (54%).

• Educator trainings and supports (52%).

• Changes in transportation (20%).

“These are challenging times for parents,” said Diane Frentzel, director of the Delaware Readiness Teams. “And they show how pivotal our child care community really is for families’ everyday lives. Hopefully, schools and child care providers can use their perspectives to shape solutions to meet families’ needs.”

COVID-19, which forced Delaware to close its school buildings in March, has already left a stressful and disruptive spring semester in its wake.

An overwhelming 99% of survey respondents said that life changes brought about by COVID-19 have been very disruptive or somewhat disruptive to their family routine. Also, 84% said their stress levels were either somewhat or much higher than usual — with some calling the impacts on their family “severe.”

COVID-19 also caused economic hardships for families: 33% reported they or someone in their households have been working less or been laid-off or furloughed. Respondents who are considered essential workers reported being twice as likely to need help with food or housing.

Only three out of 10 parents agreed or strongly agreed that their child(ren) “received appropriate and sufficient specialized needs or accommodations” during the spring semester, which was conducted remotely. Several parents shared that standards for learning and expectations have been lowered. Others shared technical challenges with remote learning, and some wished for more interactive or “live” learning opportunities for kids.

“As a parent of a public school kid and a former teacher that works with a lot of educators, I know this hasn’t been easy,” said Paul Herdman, president and CEO of Rodel. “Folks are working hard, but what I hear most from parents is the fear of the unknown. Because frankly, no one has the answers yet.”

The coronavirus crisis has significantly changed parents’ child care arrangements and other parenting duties.

Nearly half of survey respondents said they helped children learn while they worked, while others juggled babysitters or family members.

“Child care is truly an employer and employee issue,” said Michael Quaranta, president of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, which collaborated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation to learn more about child care needs of employees during COVID-19. “It’s a community development issue, (and) it’s an equity issue — and moving forward, it’s an area where Delaware really needs to focus its energy.”

When asked about the potential impact if child care providers do not reopen when parents are expected back at work, many respondents said they would have to quit their jobs or take a leave of absence.

While parents want children to return to school for socialization, education and child care (so they can work), there are major concerns about health and safety — especially for young children and those with disabilities. Some parents zeroed in on their children’s transition into kindergarten as a major concern.

As part of Delaware’s official framework for reopening schools, school districts and charters must each make plans for the fall, including contingencies for various scenarios that could unfold due to the increased spread of COVID-19. Many districts are conducting surveys of their own parents and families.

In late June, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its guidance on school reopenings, “strongly” advocating “that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” The AAP cites the “fundamental role of schools in providing academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, nutrition, physical activity and mental health therapy” in its recommendation.

Matt Amis is the senior communications officer at Rodel, a statewide nonprofit that partners with policymakers, the private sector, philanthropy and practitioners to make systemic changes that can improve students’ lives.