Madison Metropolitan School District parents are divided on their desire to return to in-person learning, according to results of a survey last month.
Superintendent Carlton Jenkins announced Friday that virtual learning would continue at the beginning of the third quarter. His decision-making process included evaluating the results from surveys sent to parents, students in grades 3-12 and staff.
Jenkins said the district will evaluate a potential return on a weekly basis this quarter, and will implement a “phased reopening” if the district determines health metrics make it safe to do so.
But what do parents, staff and students think of a potential return? Here are five takeaways from the detailed survey results, which the School Board will discuss Monday night:
1. Parents almost evenly divided on return
The district received responses from parents representing 8,107 households, or 59% of households in the district.
When asked if they preferred their student in all-virtual school, learning in-person or weren’t sure, 39% of responding households said in-person and 38% said all-virtual, with the remainder unsure.
While the percentage surpasses the district’s 33% standard outlined in its metrics for family interest in returning, it illustrates that any reopening would leave plenty of families learning virtually.
When broken down by race and ethnicity, the only group of parents with a majority for either option were parents of Asian students, with 53% wanting to stay all-virtual, 25% wanting in-person and 23% not knowing.
The highest percentages among other groups included 41% of parents of white students wanting in-person classes and 41% of parents of multiracial students wanting to remain all-virtual. Otherwise, less than 40% of parents of students in all demographics chose either option.
It was similarly divided for other demographics the district’s report highlights — 36% of parents of English learners, for example, wanted a return to in-person classes while 40% would prefer to remain all-virtual. For parents of low-income students, 37% would want to return to in-person learning, while 40% would want to remain all-virtual.
2. Parent respondents underrepresent families of color, low-income
Those last few paragraphs come with a pretty major caveat: survey respondents skewed white and not from low-income households, compared to the district’s overall demographics.
Of the students represented by parents in the survey, 52% were white. Last year, the most recent with demographic data available on the state Department of Public Instruction’s website, the district’s student body was 41.7% white.
Parents of Hispanic/Latino students, meanwhile, were 20% of the respondents, while those students were 22.3% of last year’s student body. And parents of Black students made up 12% of survey respondents, but the student body was 17.8% Black last year.
Finally, of the approximately 12,360 students represented in responses, 64% are not low-income, well above last year’s 54.4% of students that were not low-income, according to state data.
It’s an important note because much of the conversation about reopening has focused on equity, specifically concerns over students who were already the most vulnerable falling further behind, growing the achievement gap.
But partial reopenings in major urban districts like New York City and Chicago show that white students are overrepresented in those who choose to return for in-person learning compared to the overall makeup of the district, creating questions about how a partial reopening can solve those equity issues.
3. Desire to return lowers as grade of student increases
The higher the grade level of a student, the less likely their parent preferred a return to in-person learning in the survey.
For students in stage one of a potential return, which covers 4-year-old kindergarten through second grade, 41% of parents preferred some in-person instruction. That dropped to 38% for stage two (grades 3-5) and 36% for stage three (grades 6-12).
Within the stage one group, the same pattern followed for kindergarten through second-grade but there was a notable departure for 4K, in which just 33% of parents preferred in-person.
For kindergartners, meanwhile, 45% of respondents preferred in-person. That dropped slightly to 44% for first grade and more significantly to 39% for second grade.
The responses align with research that has shown younger children are less likely to contract the virus, suffer serious effects and spread it to others. As students get older, there is more mixed data on how much they can spread, though it still seems to be lower than the rate at which adults spread the virus.
Notably, students in higher grades were also less likely to have their parents represent them in the survey — 9% of parent respondents had a student in first, third or fourth grade, while just 5% of respondents had a student in 12th grade.
4. Majority of Black student respondents would want in-person class
The district also surveyed students in grades 3-12, with a 33% response rate.
The demographics were skewed again, though 19% of respondents did not identify their race or ethnicity. Overall, 42% of the respondents wanted to return to in-person, 30% were unsure and 28% wanted to remain all-virtual.
The starkest difference was for Black students, with 58% wanting in-person class compared to 22% that weren’t sure and 21% that want to remain all-virtual. All other demographic groups except Asian students had a plurality of respondents preferring in-person learning — 44% for Hispanic/Latino students, 43% for multiracial students and 40% for white students.
A plurality of students identifying as Asian wanted to remain all-virtual, with 38% choosing that option, 32% wanting to return to in-person and 29% unsure.
By income level, 45% of low-income student respondents wanted to return to in-person learning while 29% wanted to remain all-virtual. For non-low-income students, 41% wanted to return for in-person class and 28% wanted to remain all-virtual.
The group of students that most preferred a return to in-person was middle schoolers, with 38% of respondents in grades 6-8 choosing that option. But 41% of middle schoolers were unsure and 31% wanted to remain virtual.
Elementary respondents, in grades 3-5, were closely divided, with 34% preferring in-person, 32% wanting to stay all-virtual and 30% unsure.
High schoolers saw a plurality wanting to remain virtual, with 36% choosing that option, 29% unsure and 28% wanting to return for in-person learning.
5. Majority of staff “able” to return but don’t support face-to-face instruction
The district asked staff two main questions: would they contact human resources about needing accommodations if facilities reopened and are they “able” to return to work?
A majority of the respondents said they would not contact HR and they would be able to return, at 65% and 64%, respectively.
Results from a Madison Teachers Inc. survey, shared publicly ahead of Jenkins’ Friday announcement, indicated that while they may be able to return, they did not support face-to-face instruction to begin the third quarter. MTI reported that 94% of its respondents did not support a return.
Union leaders said Jenkins consulted them as part of his decision-making process, and Jenkins said in a Friday afternoon press conference he took information from both surveys in making the decision.
It indicates that if and when the district does return, the buy-in from staff is likely a key component to any plan being successful and to avoid acrimony between the two parties, which recently settled a pair of complaints MTI had filed with the state. As part of that settlement, they agreed on a new structure to work together.
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