Parents say in-person, full time instruction is best, but are concerned about keeping families safe from virus

The Kent School Re-Entry survey, a survey of Kent County parents,  gathered more than 30,000 responses in a little less than two weeks.

Those respondents gave valuable feedback to Kent County superintendents via answers to 18 questions on both the school year to come and on the recently completed, but disrupted, school year. Resources, including survey results, can be found here.

The story told by those 30,000-plus responses is one of high confidence in the quality of traditional, in-person instruction. It also includes significant worry about how face-to-face instruction can be done and still keep students and families safe from COVID-19. Parents had little confidence in a hybrid option (some face-to-face and some online) to do anything especially well.

Questions covered parent concerns, the quality of different learning options, perceptions about safety, as well as student wellbeing. 

The survey had three main goals:

  • Identifying safety concerns in resuming school in the fall
  • Understanding parents’ perception of “distance” learning during the state-mandated school closure of Spring 2020
  • Guiding decisions around health and safety, instruction and students’ overall well-being

Parents Eager for a Return to School as Normal

Survey results were shared on June 23 via a Zoom press conference hosted by the Future Learning Committee of the Kent Intermediate Superintendents’ Association (KISA). Speakers included Ron Caniff, Superintendent, Kent ISD; Kevin Polston, Superintendent, Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, KISA Future Committee Chair and member of the Governor’s Return to Learn Advisory Council; Sunil Joy, Data Scientist, Kent ISD; and Ron Koehler, Education Consultant and former Kent ISD Assistant Superintendent.

The numbers, those participants said, are both telling and will inform how Kent County “does school” this fall.

Ron Caniff

“Most parents would like to see a return to school as normal in late August,” said Ron Caniff, superintendent of Kent ISD, which commissioned the survey on behalf of KISA. “Our superintendents are working to ensure a safe opening, researching all information regarding the steps necessary to protect students and staff, and will remain connected with the health department and parents throughout the summer to ensure they are well informed about school re-opening plans.”

A clear message from the survey was the value parents place on in-person instruction, with almost nine in 10 respondents saying they are “very to extremely” confident in that option to deliver a quality education to their child.

Just one in ten respondents expressed the same confidence level in distance learning’s ability to deliver a quality education.

But the numbers changed when parents were asked what would keep their children safe this fall, as almost seven in 10 said distance learning would be safest. Only four in 10 said the same about in-person instruction.

African American respondents less confident about safety

Additionally, confidence about in-person instruction and safety was lowest for African American respondents with just two in 10 saying they were “very to extremely” confident about the in-person option and their family’s safety.

By contrast, almost half of white respondents were “very to extremely” confident about the in-person option keeping their family safe.

Kevin Polston

Polston, the Godfrey-Lee superintendent, noted the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in the state of Michigan was likely reflected in many of the survey questions when responses were broken out based on race.

African Americans are approximately 15% of Michigan’s population but, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, currently account for about 40% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.

“It’s systemic racism embedded in our institutions,” Polston later told School News Network. “There is hesitation because COVID-19 has been felt more severely in those communities. We have to acknowledge that and work to make the systems more equitable.”

Despite the concerns about in-person instruction and safety, Kent County area superintendents say the overwhelming support for the quality of face-to-face instruction will make that option the priority for fall 2020.

“Parents want to see school open in the fall, in a traditional face-to-face setting,” said Caniff. “In-person learning is what parents believe will provide a quality educational experience to their children.”

He added though that concerns around safety will necessitate an online option for parents who have children at high risk, or family members who are at high risk. In addition, some parents may simply not feel in-person school will be safe enough. 

MySchool@Kent Option for Online Instruction

On that last point, the survey showed that one of every five respondents said they were “not at all confident” that in-person instruction would keep their family safe from exposure to COVID-19 in 2020-21. 

That included significant non-confidence for both African American and Hispanic/Latino respondents. Almost four in ten respondents in each group were “not at all confident” in in-person instruction when it came to safety.

Online delivery, he said, will be a local district decision, and districts will have access to Kent ISD’s countywide online school – MySchool@Kent – as one potential option for delivery of virtual instruction for middle and high school students. Families who choose an online option will have continued access to local district extracurricular and co-curricular activities.

And, Caniff, added, any plans underway are subject to change depending on decisions made by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The governor is expected to unveil “Michigan’s Return to School Roadmap” June 30 with recommendations for opening schools across the state this fall. In a recent address, she expressed optimism that in-person instruction can happen in the fall. In addition, Republicans in the Michigan House announced a “Return to Learn” plan on June 23, during the KISA survey Zoom press conference.

All of the advice and mandates from the governor and lawmakers will guide Kent ISD superintendents in whatever options are provided in Kent County this fall. Caniff said the ability to survey parents now and gather their input as planning proceeds will make a big difference in what education looks like in 2020-21, regardless of how it is delivered.

“How we concluded the (2019-20) school year was not something any of us anticipated,” Caniff acknowledged. “It was ‘not excellent’ in the words of one of our superintendents. Now we face an uncertain future, including funding, but to rise to those challenges, we are working together, and we will provide a safe and quality education option for every child.”

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan hails from Exeter, Ontario, but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985. He is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop! Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both freelance writing and public relations work, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level. In the summer of 2019, he began his own freelance writing and communications business. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio or email Phil.

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