In the Face of American ‘Truth Decay,’ Polls Shed Light on How Much Families Are Hurting During COVID-19

(Karen Ducey / Getty Images)

These days, after months of grinding pandemic drudgery, it’s easy to focus on what’s different. Walk, mask pulled tight, past your boarded-up neighborhood hangout and sigh at the prospect of another night of your own cooking. Gaze, longingly, at your friend’s driveway and sigh at lost game nights and barbecues. Flip on your television and see that, while the Tigers aren’t 10 games below .500 yet, that’s only because Major League Baseball never got out of spring training.

But at its core, the current crisis isn’t a divergence from the norm — it’s an enhancement. So much of the coronavirus era is our reality, just a little more so. For at least a decade, the country has struggled with what experts call “truth decay,” as basic facts lose their ability to hold sway in public debates. Truth decay advances when humans sort the facts before them to suit their preferences. Can’t face the complaints protesters are raising about police’s excessive use of force against African Americans? These days, you can find yourself a whole TV network that will reassure you that the real problem is the complaints themselves.

Ours is a country where reliable information on major public issues was already scarce, but the current crisis elevates the consequences of this dynamic. COVID-19 has raised the stakes. Elevation of fact-free theories about the coronavirus’s spread and untested treatments like hydroxychloroquine and disinfectant have cost American lives.

Public education is not immune to this dynamic. As schools have shuttered and teachers have scrambled to hustle forth distance learning lessons for their students, some folks in the education world have sought to take advantage of the crisis to advance their own ends. Most notably, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has sought to use emergency public education funds to support private schools — but she’s hardly alone.

Everyone is opining about what’s best for kids this spring, summer and fall, even though most of us are stuck at home with limited information about how kids in other homes are actually experiencing this moment. Everyone is searching for “best practices” for serving students in our current moment, even though it’s far too early for anyone to know what’s working during this unplanned, nearly three-month experiment.

Fortunately, polling data from students and families are starting to roll in — those are as close as we’ll get to facts about the current moment until schools are able to reliably administer assessments again. They’re not perfect guides, but they’re better than gazing at Twitter and deciding that we were right about tests, online learning, and/or early education, etc., all along.

So, how are families feeling about how schools are doing?

How is online learning going?

The research on virtual learning — even when it’s carefully crafted and steadily resourced — is discouraging. Is there any hope for our current hodgepodge of hastily assembled onscreen campuses?

Polling suggests that many parents aren’t confident. In mid-May, a Boston Public Schools survey found that over one-third of families report that they need the district to do more to make online learning work for students. Similarly, in its annual statewide poll of families’ views on the state’s education system, while the Public Policy Institute of California found that over 90 percent of families approve of how their schools are responding to the pandemic, it also found that around 30 percent of families are “very concerned” about how well kids are learning while schools are closed. Another 34 percent are “somewhat concerned.”

Also in California, the Parent Institute for Quality Education’s recent polling found that 20 percent of families report lacking technology to access online learning and around one-third report having no email address. Nearly 80 percent of parents of students with disabilities say that they don’t know if their students are receiving the services they need. Similarly, 45 percent of parents of English-learning students say their children are not receiving the language instruction they need.

Meanwhile, in an April poll conducted by the Education Trust-West and other California organizations , about 70 percent of California parents of children under the age of 5 report that their kids are spending more time using screen technology like tablets (a similar percentage report increased time watching TV). It’s not clear that they’re feeling confident about this, however. Huge majorities — each over 90 percent — report that “it would be helpful” to receive examples and online resources for supporting their children’s development. Similar percentages of parents also say they need better access to the internet.

How are families faring?

If families are uncertain about their children’s progress while everyone’s staying home, that’s also because the public-health crisis is intensifying the pressures kids face. Around 1 in 5 Boston families report facing housing instability during the crisis, and 1 in 7 has struggled to get enough food. Similarly, 30 percent of young California families report using public meal offerings, but fully 90 percent say that it would be useful to have access to food supports. Nearly 40 percent anticipate having trouble paying for food, housing, or health care if things don’t get back to normal soon.

A Raising New York poll of families of young children published at the end of April found similarly high rates of parental worry about food, housing and other key expenses during the pandemic. Consequently, over two-thirds of respondents express concerns about the impact on their children’s development.

What next?

It’s clear, as some of us have been insisting, that there’s no way to honestly talk about a global pandemic as an “opportunity.” The immediate suffering of the crisis is immense, and we still haven’t yet begun to unpack the long-term consequences for students’ learning and well-being. This is a catastrophe for many children and their families, and it’s still a major hurdle for even the most privileged.

On the one hand, these data suggest that schools can’t reopen soon enough. Children are suffering in lonely isolation, learning loss is a real concern, and families are gasping under the combined weight of child care, work and/or financial pressures. This is especially true now that, as I’ve written before, schools are so much more than hosting sites for academic lessons — many also serve as delivery sites for a wide range of social services. It’s compelling logic: Get kids back to school so the adults in their lives can get back to work and everything can get as quickly back to some semblance of normal.

But, on the other hand, these pressing facts aren’t the only ones in play. Again, schools aren’t inoculated against the broader contexts in which they operate. When armed protesters storm statehouses insisting that governors “reopen” the economy, they’re really insisting that employers be freed to demand that employees work. But employees can’t work if they don’t have a safe place to send their children. Which is to say that, translated from fevered rhetoric into concrete actions, “reopening” the economy really means forcing children and teachers to schools before the coronavirus has been sufficiently contained.

In the wake of more than 2 million reported COVID-19 cases and nearly 114,000 deaths, and amid new risks from the virus for kids, public-health concerns shouldn’t be suspended. It should go without saying that fantastical proposals to impose social distancing rules on boisterous elementary schoolers (to say nothing of amorous adolescents) should be scrapped before they get off the ground.

So: Distance learning can’t deliver what kids need. Kids are desperate for the academic and social connections that schools offer. Families need child care help and the wide range of services schools provide. But unless we’re willing to tolerate constant health risks for children, parents, teachers and — let’s be honest — all of us, campuses can’t reopen until the virus is much better contained.

That’s not a pleasant fact, but it’s a fact nonetheless.

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