Will Parents Let Their Children Return to Reopened Schools? | Opinion

"We're very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools, to get them open," Mr. Trump said at an education summit held at the White House last Tuesday.

But parents may not be in a rush to send their children back to school. On the same day of the White House forum, the nation saw a new single day record of COVID-19 cases and spiking infection numbers across 37 states over the past two weeks. States are busy preparing technical plans for schools, but may be missing the important health issues they must address in order to instill parental trust. Unless leaders quickly respond to these cautious parents, schools will open their doors but children will stay at home.

According to a national survey of parents, only one-fifth feel safe sending their children back to school in August or September. Almost four in 10 parents say they would not send their children back to school until a vaccine is available, a timeframe that could still be 18 months away.

These national trends are surfacing in local surveys, as well. Fifteen percent of parents in Alabama said they were uneasy sending their children back to school. The Hillsborough County School District in Florida surveyed 58,000 community members and found that only 25 percent feel very comfortable sending their child back to school.

And it's not just here in the U.S. In May, when schools began to reopen throughout Europe, over 700,000 Britons signed a petition calling for the right to opt out. Nearly half of British families said they planned to keep their children at home when schools reopen on June 1. When schools did reopen, just one in four of those students eligible to return did so, leading the government to close schools until the fall.

If schools want a better turnout in the fall, state and school leaders will need to do these three things to instill confidence in parents.

First, state and local leaders need to do more to share with parents the growing evidence that children are at a much lower risk for COVID-19. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report stating that "the preponderance of evidence" indicates children are less likely to be symptomatic, have severe disease or transmit COVID-19. An analysis of 45 scientific studies concluded that children only account for one to five percent of cases, "they often have milder disease than adults and deaths have been extremely rare." Yet most state and local reopening plans for reopening do not mention any of this research. Massachusetts is an exception, having summarized several studies which will help equip local leaders with the information they need to communicate with parents.

Second, the messenger is as important as the message. Parents are concerned about the health risks posed by sending their children to school. They will look to health officials—not school officials—to say that it is safe. Parents are three times more likely to trust the CDC than school boards and superintendents with information related to the health and safety of reopening schools. They are over six times more likely to trust state health officials than their school principal.

Public school in New York City
Public school in New York City Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

This points to the importance of involving public health officials in developing reopening plans and, perhaps more importantly, in communicating them. The Indiana State Department of Health is embracing this approach by hiring a health liaison to work directly with schools and host weekly informational webinars. The Miami-Dade County School District is also taking the smart approach of hiring a chief health officer to plan, coordinate and communicate with parents about how the district prioritizes the health and safety of school-aged children.

Third, school systems will need to give hesitant parents the option to continue with online learning in the fall. It will take time for parents to believe that it is safe for their kids to go back to school. Others will not feel safe until there is a vaccine. In the meantime, schools need to offer these parents the option to have their children continue online learning options. This requires more planning for online learning, as well as professional development for teachers providing online instruction.

Online learning will need to be more interactive and engaging, along with frequent check-ins by teachers, mentors and tutors. Most parents want more live online classes, but according to the Census Bureau, the average student received less than four hours per week of live instruction this past spring. That amounts to less than eight percent of the 53 hours per week teachers say they spend working. Schools will need better technology, but also better professional development, to support these new roles for teachers.

Parents are understandably concerned about the safety and health of their children. In order to instill confidence, local leaders must share research and evidence, utilize health officials to build and promote a reopening strategy, and provide engaging remote learning options.

John Bailey worked on the first federal pandemic preparedness plan. He previously served as a domestic policy advisor at the White House and was the director of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education. He is currently a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.