Our country is thick with 3 challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic, long-standing racial injustices, and economic insecurity.  As schools and districts prepare for the Fall semester,  these themes converge. In this time, what do families think?

COVID-19 leads families to have to consider all these issues as they consider their Fall plans.  Through our work with districts and schools, and the 150,000 parents we learn with, we see these divergent needs come through. Schools and districts need to hear from families. Most are creating paths to do so.  The impact of racial injustice, socio-economic insecurity, and of course COVID-19 need to be layered into the listening and planning process.

Making Sure You Can Learn From Families

Each family is an expert on their own unique context – and to make the best decisions in planning for schools to start in August and September, schools and districts need to design ways to:

  • Hear from as many families as possible
  • Know what families want and need – and how this varies demographically
  • Have quick turnarounds from data collection to insights
  • Collect information in an equitable way without barriers due to web access, language, or time

Over the past months we have been working with leading schools and districts as they listen to families.  What we are finding may seem surprising – but also reinforces what polls like this one from FiveThirtyEight show, as well as other national polls, show.

What Families Say

Here are just a few considerations for decision-makers.

  • Competing needs. Families have competing needs, sometimes within their own family. They want and need their kids in school, but also may have a family member who is immunocompromised.
  • Differences by demographics. Families, particularly in schools that have a higher percentage of African-American or Latino students, are not comfortable with in person plans for the Fall. Those families also are more likely to have been personally affected by COVID-19.
  • Families with kids with unique learning needs have specific concerns – on the one hand they know their kids need the support of a social community and teacher. On the other hand, their child may also have a higher likelihood of being immunocompromised.
  • Teachers matter! Whether distanced learning or in-person learning, parents want to make sure that teachers are interacting with and teaching in some way, daily.
  • Predictable future. Parents and schools alike are trying to create plans that are easy to adjust. They want some sense of what the future will hold. This means even if in person, building up the ability to move online. This also means equipping students with materials like textbooks and workbooks that they can use anywhere.

The Context Families Are Navigating

In order for states, cities, districts and schools to put together plans that matter, they need to bring all of the nation’s biggest challenges into the conversation: COVID-19, racial injustices, and economic insecurity.

If we don’t talk about COVID-19 and racial injustice, we won’t understand why African-American and Latino families may be reticent to return.  A Brookings Institute article Race Gaps in Covid-19 Deaths Are Bigger Than They Appear shared, “In every age category, Black people are dying from COVID at roughly the same rate as white people more than a decade older. Age-specific death rates for Hispanic/Latino people fall in between.”

If we don’t talk about the fact that the unemployment rate is the highest since the Great Depression, or that under half of Black adults now have a job (Black Workers Inequality Economic Risks) we may underestimate the realities that families and students are wrestling with.

As educators, we always believe that education is the answer to almost every problem.  And in many ways, it is – over a long horizon.  But if you are a family wondering if you are going to have the health to see that time through, or the money to navigate it, the horizon may seem far off.

So as challenging as our decisions are about the path to schooling in Fall are, without taking into account the other central conversations in our country – about COVID 19 realities, racial injustices, and the economic realities – we won’t be able to come up with a solution…even an imperfect one.