SCHOOL’S OUT FOR the summer. Is school out forever? Parents hope not, describing very mixed experiences with the remote learning experience that began in March. The MassINC Polling Group recently surveyed 1,502 parents statewide and found there was no single story that describes what parents went through from mid-March to June, but rather thousands of individual stories of children, parents, teachers, schools, and districts each taking their own route on the trek through remote learning.
In the best of times, education requires managing the vast diversity of student experiences. The survey, sponsored by The Barr Foundation and The Boston Foundation, suggests as the student diaspora reassembles this fall and beyond, schools will find students dealt with a huge range of remote learning experiences.
Some parents said their children were engaged in daily online classrooms (36 percent) and check-ins (13 percent), while others were mostly not connected to these regular school activities. Inequities by race and income heightened some remote learning hurdles, and language and technology barriers all but locked out some parents and students.
In households where English is not spoken regularly, just 54 percent reported online classroom participation at least a few times a week, compared to 72 percent of English-speaking households. Just 35 percent of non-English households reported regular personalized feedback from teachers. The language barrier extended beyond just the classroom, with only about half (53 percent) of non-English households saying their schools or districts offered multi-lingual materials. Language services for many students themselves also suffered, with 31 percent of parents of English language learners reporting ELL services were either inadequate or non-existent.
There is little systematic, official data to compare to these survey results but what exists from official or media sources seems to follow the contours of the poll data. A Boston Globe analysis found Worcester schools were slow to bridge the technology gap, echoing the survey’s findings. The survey found among residents with household incomes under $50,000, 24 percent lacked the devices they needed for remote learning, and 17 percent did not have sufficient internet access.
In all, non-white parents in district schools were less likely to report regular teacher or classroom interaction. This put the burden on them to supplement more with their own materials, and working over their children’s shoulders to steer through technical and academic challenges. In short, the school was less the center of education for these families, who could not access the programs or support the school was offering.
Despite these challenges, few parents threw up their hands and gave up. Instead, parents responded as best they could, helping their children work through the technical challenges of remote learning, and often with the school work itself. Just 6 percent of parents statewide said their children were not participating at all by the end of the school year. This figure did not meaningfully vary by race and ethnicity.
Children’s connections to school activities were closely related to parents’ overall feelings of satisfaction with school performance. Parents who offered “excellent” ratings described far more frequent contact with schools than parents rating school performance as “fair” or “poor.” Parents also varied in terms of the support they received for their children. Those who felt there was too little were much less satisfied.
Charter schools appear to have offered more (often far more) communication and support to parents. Among parents of children in charter schools, 69 percent report personalized feedback at least a few times a week compared to 50 percent of district school parents. Looking at one-on-one check-ins, far more charter parents (58 percent) than district school parents (34 percent) say they were happening multiple times per week.
For Latino and Asian charter parents, the gaps were larger still, with 70 percent or more reporting personalized feedback and one-on-one check-ins multiple times per week. These frequencies vastly outstripped Latino and Asian parents in district schools.
This contact level had an impact both on students both academically and emotionally. Latino and Asian charter parents were most likely to say remote learning had been a positive emotional experience for their children, in stark contrast to their district school counterparts. Looking ahead, charter parents are much more likely to say they have been asked for their views on reopening and more likely to express confidence it can be done safely.
The road ahead appears extremely uncertain. While state officials have announced reopening guidelines, other data from this poll found parents are not unified in their wishes. Parents of color (particularly black and Latinx women) are far more skeptical that reopening can be done safely. This could lead to very uneven experiences in the fall. In districts and schools that are majority black and Latino, this could lead to very concentrated concerns as reopening approaches, while other districts may see little hesitation. With President Trump pouring gasoline on this already fractious issue, it could easily become more divisive.
Surveys like this offer some insight into what happened during the unprecedented interruption in in-person instruction. When school does resume, the results of the survey suggest the contours of what learning loss might look like. Without many clear and consistent official statistics, there is not much else to go on other than anecdote. As the survey shows, there are as many different anecdotes as there are districts, schools, teachers, and students.
Steve Koczela is president of the MassINC Polling Group.