Madison families are evenly split on whether students should return to the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic, while a third of Madison School District staff indicated they would not return, according to a survey conducted by the district in December.
The survey was conducted ahead of last week’s decision by the district to keep classes online for the start of the third quarter.
Restarting in-person instruction would have been challenging if 36% of staff were unable to return, as the survey found. Many of those respondents cited health concerns for themselves and loved ones in their household as well as safety concerns and lack of access to the COVID-19 vaccine.
The district included public health experts, parents and staff and the district’s teachers union, Madison Teachers Inc., in the decision. A key consideration was the safety of adults in multigenerational households that include district students and staff.
A number of the staff respondents expressed concerns for their safety in regard to class size, ventilation and PPE, lack of district evidence that a safe return is plausible, the high number of COVID-19 cases in Dane County and a lack of detailed policies and procedures for returning.
“Our numbers in Dane County do not support a safe return. Our classes are too large to be able to space them out according to guidelines,” one staff member wrote in response to the survey.
District staff also noted a desire for widespread vaccination before returning to classrooms. Gov. Tony Evers said Monday the public won’t be able to receive the vaccine until June.
Madison Teachers Inc. issued a separate survey ahead of the district’s decision last week that asked members if they were ready to return to in-person learning for the third quarter. An overwhelming majority indicated they felt it was too soon to reopen classrooms.
“They asked a different question than us,” Madison School District Superintendent Carlton Jenkins said. “They asked a question about teachers feeling comfortable coming back, we asked how many felt like they could come back. It was different, from our survey to their survey, and anytime you have two different surveys, researchers will tell you, it is about the question: Was it the same, was it the same intent? And no it wasn’t.”
Families surveyed appeared almost evenly split on whether to return their children to classrooms, with 38% preferring online-only learning and 39% being open to in-person instruction.
The remaining 28% of families who responded said they were unsure which they’d prefer, but the majority were less receptive to in-person learning due to concerns with the high number of cases or lack of access to the COVID-19 vaccine.
Of families who identified as Black or African American, 39% said they would prefer to return to in-person learning and 38% preferred online-only. Hispanic and Latino families were evenly split, according to the survey, with 38% preferring in-person and 38% preferring online-only. The majority of Asian families said they prefer online-only at 53% to 25% who said they would prefer in-person. Forty-one percent of multiracial families said they would prefer online-only learning to 35% who preferred in-person, and 31% of white families said they’d prefer online-only to 41% who would prefer in-person.
Of families who identified as low income, 40% preferred online-only learning to 37% in-person. Forty percent of families with special education students preferred online-only learning to 39% who said they would prefer in-person.
High school and middle school families were evenly split about whether to stay online or return to the classroom, while 40% of elementary school families preferred some in-person learning to 35% who preferred online-only learning.
The district sent a reopening survey out to nearly 14,000 Madison families in December and received responses from 59% of them.
Madison students in grades 3-12 who responded to the survey said they prefer in-person learning by wider margins than parent respondents, with 42% stating that they would prefer to return to in-person classes compared to 28% who said they’d like to remain online-only. Two-thirds of the students who responded indicated they would need extra learning support in the form of a tutor, mentor or both.
Of students who identified as Black or African American, 58% said they would prefer to return to in-person learning to 21% who opted for online-only. Among Hispanic and Latino students, 44% said they would prefer in-person to 28% who opted for online-only. Students who identify as Asian said they prefer online-only at 38% to 32% who said they would prefer in-person. Forty-three percent of multiracial students said they would prefer in-person learning to 27% who preferred online-only, and 28% of white students said they’d prefer online-only to 40% who would prefer in-person.
Of students who identified as low-income, 29% preferred online-only learning to 45% in-person. Forty-three percent of special education students preferred in-person learning to 34% who said they would prefer online-only.
The district sent the reopening survey to 18,775 students in grades 3-12 in December, 33% of whom responded.
Despite the decision to remain in an online-only format for the third quarter, Jenkins said he plans to return students to in-person learning in a phased approach once health data indicate it is safe to do so.
The district is watching daily COVID-19 case numbers and data provided by Public Health Madison and Dane County as well as in-building mitigation efforts such as health screenings prior to reopening. If the district were to decide to reopen, they would give the community at least three-week notice before welcoming students back into buildings.
“We’re opening up third-quarter virtual but it doesn’t mean things can’t change,” Jenkins said during a press conference Friday. “We have to remember this is a health crisis, and safety is our number one priority right now for everyone, for students, for our teachers, for our administrators, for our families and for our community.”
Photos: How Midwest schools are navigating COVID-19