Surveys: Some parents fearful of a return to school during COVID-19

Some parents in Georgia say they are concerned about sending students into school buildings in the fall during the coronavirus pandemic. AJC FILE

Some parents in Georgia say they are concerned about sending students into school buildings in the fall during the coronavirus pandemic. AJC FILE

Surveys in a few school districts suggest Georgia may have a tough time getting parents to return their kids to school in the fall if the COVID-19 pandemic continues unabated.

One in 4 respondents in a new Forsyth County Schools survey said they are "not at all comfortable" sending students into school buildings in August.

That could complicate reopening plans.

The 51,000-student Forsyth district has a leading reputation for online education. With relatively low poverty and high internet connectivity rates, the district has prioritized virtual education for days when weather forces closures. It works well enough when snow and ice linger for a few days, but the system wasn’t designed to sustain students for months at a time and that showed last semester.

At a virtual school board meeting Tuesday, Forsyth Superintendent Jeff Bearden said online schooling was the least desirable option for fall. An alternative, sending half the students into the buildings one week and the other half the next to allow for safer social distancing, would still require online learning half the time and would be “very challenging” for teachers and “disruptive” for parents, he said.

The north metro Atlanta district will not finalize plans for at least a month, but Bearden said the one remaining option, in-person schooling, would be the most desirable.

Most other districts are still making their plans, and some are still surveying parents. The much larger Fulton County, with 94,000 students, has a survey going now, with results and a board discussion about the fall expected next week. A Cobb County spokesperson said that district of 112,000 is still gathering feedback. DeKalb County’s school board plans to discuss fall plans for its 98,000 students next week when it will also open a survey, with results not expected until July.

Still, the Forsyth responses were consistent with those in two other, much smaller, districts.

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Michele Taylor, superintendent of Calhoun City Schools in northwest Georgia, with 4,200 students, said Monday that about 30% of respondents in a survey that opened last week had expressed “some anxiety” about in-person schooling. Early County Schools in southwest Georgia, with 1,900 students, found a similar level of concern, with about 1 in 4 parents surveyed saying they didn’t want to send their children back, Superintendent Bronwyn Ragan-Martin said.

Unlike Forsyth, Early has significant gaps in online connectivity, with teachers saying as many as half their students were unable to attend virtually this past semester.

“So we have to have a (stronger) virtual option or we’re going to lose those kids,” said Ragan-Martin, who is president of the Georgia School Superintendents Association.

Despite the similar levels of parental anxiety, the pandemic risk differs significantly in those three communities. In Early County, 32 have died for a rate of 312 deaths per 100,000 residents, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was reporting on its website Thursday. Calhoun has had half as many deaths for a much lower 28 deaths per 100,000. Forsyth County was even safer, with 12 deaths at five per 100,000.

The Forsyth survey was taken anonymously online by more than 17,000 people, most of them parents, and nearly 5,000 responded to the question about their comfort with in-person schooling. More than 2,000 submitted comments, according to a copy provided by the school district. Some worried about a second wave of infections while others feared a repeat of the spring semester, which one called a “totally ridiculous waste of time.” Others sounded exasperated.

“Dear god,” wrote one, “let the kids go back to the classroom.”

How Forsyth County respondents answered a survey question about returning kids to school buildings in August:

Extremely comfortable: 28%

Very comfortable: 15%

Moderately comfortable: 18%

Slightly comfortable: 14%

Not at all comfortable: 25%

SOURCE: Forsyth County Schools