Oct. 4, 2021
The 2021-2022 school year is underway and the dreams of a “normal” school year that seemed reasonable early in the summer have been erased by the grim reality of the Delta variant that has swept across the country. There are nationwide debates around various aspects of school reopening, including battles about mask mandates, vaccine requirements for teachers, and school quarantine policies.
Despite these controversies, the vast majority of students are now back in the classroom, and for some students, this is the first in-person schooling they’ve experienced in over a year (or the first ever for the youngest students). As schools begin the long process of helping students and families transition back to school, it can be helpful to understand how parents are feeling about the return to in-person learning to gain a better understanding of what schools can do to help families and students have a successful school year in 2021-2022 and beyond.
In April 2021, as part of New America’s “Learning at Home While Under-Connected” project, researchers facilitated and recorded one-hour focus groups with parents in three communities: Detroit, MI; Pittsburgh, PA; and Santa Clara County, CA. Participants were parents and caregivers with young children, ages three to six, in households with incomes below $75,000 per year. Focus group questions were designed to align with questions in a national probability-based telephone survey conducted in March and April 2021 focused on families’ digital access during the pandemic. These discussions enabled us to gather more in-depth and contextual information on what lower-income families have endured during the pandemic, what they need in terms of internet and device access, what they discovered about their children’s learning while working with them at home over the year, what they want for their children in the coming school year, and more.
While many of the focus group questions were about the technological challenges families faced during the pandemic, other themes that emerged from the discussion are helpful in understanding how parents feel about the transition back to in-person learning. For example, in all three communities, parents expressed mixed emotions about sending their children back to in-person learning:
- “I don't want her to go, even if everyone is vaccinated. The vaccine doesn't mean that we won't get the coronavirus or that it won't hit us. So I'd rather she still be here...So no, I'm not going to send my child to school next year.” — Mother of a three-and-a-half-year-old (Santa Clara County)
- "I am 1,000 percent for it. Every day, all day, would be my preference. He'll be in second grade in the fall." —Mother of a six-year-old (Pittsburgh)
Even parents who expressed excitement about their children returning to school had hesitations. Many of these hesitations centered around the anticipated difficulty of helping children adjust to new routines and new classmates:
- "I have to prepare myself mentally with J because every time her routines change it is a problem." — Mother of a four-year-old (Detroit)
- “She… thinks that when she goes back to school she will see her friends next school year, but she will start in a new school so I don't know how she is going to react when she realizes that will be around different children." — Mother of a six-year-old (Detroit)
These concerns are understandable. Transitions into elementary school and between the early grades can be challenging in normal times, let alone when during a pandemic that has upended daily life for most people.
The good news for these parents is that they’re not alone in helping their children experience a smooth transition back to in-person learning. There are ways that school and district education officials can address the myriad challenges they face as students transition back to school. A toolkit created by New America and EducationCounsel outlines concrete steps that can be taken to ensure effective and supportive transitions for children, families, and educators this fall and beyond.
The toolkit highlights a number of likely scenarios that schools and districts should consider and plan for over the next year, such as an influx of kindergartners, an increased number of children experiencing trauma, and family hesitancy to return to in-person learning. The toolkit outlines these challenges and then proposes potential state and local solutions to address them along with funding streams that can help pay for the solutions.
While we are now well into the school year, schools can take these actions at any point in the year and now is a good time to start planning for what may be needed next year. To help address the kind of hesitancy to return to school that many of the focus group parents expressed, for example, school staff could conduct home visits to gain a better understanding of family concerns as well as work with trusted community organizations to coordinate and deliver a consistent message. The state, for its part, could help by providing funds for family focus groups to better understand parent concerns and needs. Schools and other organizations wishing to learn more about families’ access to the internet and digital devices during the pandemic can use this toolkit designed to simplify the process.
While we can be hopeful that the Delta variant might be the last major COVID-19 surge in the country, the reality is that addressing parents’ fears and concerns over a return to school is a task that will last beyond the opening weeks of the school year and even beyond the 2021-22 school year. School and district education officials will need to engage in an ongoing process to ensure families have the information and assistance they need to feel supported as they return to the classroom.
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