California voters, including parents, have deep concerns about distance learning

October 8, 2020

Student Brielle Cohan-Hadria participates in a Zoom lesson from a class overseen by teachers with the YMCA at the Anza Elementary School campus in Torrance on September 17, 2020.

As most public and private school students in California continue to study from home, distance learning gets a definite thumbs down from the state’s registered voters, including parents, according to a new EdSource poll.

A majority of voters as well as parents feel that the state’s schools in general are not prepared to offer high quality distance learning, although they are more positive about their own local schools.

Parents worry that if children are at home for the rest of the year it will result in learning loss for all students, but especially for the most economically vulnerable who suffer from hunger or housing insecurity. Low income parents in particular worry that prolonged distance learning will mean they won’t be able to get back to work.

These are among the key findings of an EdSource survey of 834 registered voters. The representative poll was conducted online between Aug. 29 and Sept. 7 by the FM3 Research polling firm.

The poll was conducted just as distance learning was getting under way, so parents’ views may change as more of them have direct experience with remote instruction for a prolonged period during the coming months.

One major issue that has emerged since the pandemic upended education nationwide is how to motivate children and keep them coming back day after day when they aren’t in the classroom, and don’t have direct contact with teachers. Those concerns are shared by parents, who say the biggest challenge of distance learning is sustaining their children’s interest and motivation to study. Parents also worry about insufficient instructional time with a teacher, and say it is hard for children to work on their own, as well as understand assignments.

Levels of dissatisfaction related to the pandemic run so deep that one in four say they are considering moving their children to a private, parochial or charter school.

Voters say schools unprepared for distance learning, although parents more positive

Just over half of parents (54%) feel that California schools in general are somewhat or very unprepared to offer distance learning, while 41% said they were prepared. That mirrors exactly the proportion of voters in general who held similar views.

However, parents are slightly more positive than voters in general about the preparedness of their local schools. About half of parents (50%) say they feel their schools are prepared to offer high-quality distance learning, compared with 40% who feel they are unprepared.

Dissatisfaction with distance learning 

Fully 75% of registered voters, including parents, say that distance learning is worse than in class instruction. Only 2% say it is better.


Views shaped by experience with distance learning last spring

A major reason parents hold such a dim view of distance learning stems from their experience with distance learning in the spring, when distance learning was sprung on districts on short notice. Just over half of parents (55%) rate their child’s experience with distance learning in the spring as “not too effective” (27%) or “not at all effective” (27%). Only 7% rate it as “very effective.”

In fact, one third of parents couldn’t cite anything positive about their experience with distance learning in the spring.

When asked to rate what went really well, 7% cite excellent teaching. Another 7% cite having a safe and comfortable environment to access instruction. A similarly small percentage of parents (7%) say teachers and staff staying in close touch with parents was a positive aspect of distance learning.

Challenges managing distance learning

As they brace for most children being at home this fall, the majority of parents say it will be difficult for them to manage distance learning for their child this year. Well over half (58%) say it will be difficult, while 39% say it will be easy.

Over 70% worry about learning loss for all or most children, as well as the lack of social interaction with other children. Their greatest concern (80%) is the impact of learning loss on vulnerable children, including those experiencing hunger, homelessness or upheaval at home.

When asked to identify what they view as the major challenge their child or their family face in adjusting to a distance learning regimen, parents list a series of concerns all related to engaging students and keeping them motivated.

Seventy-nine percent of parents say keeping children motivated and a similar proportion point to sustaining their interest as their biggest challenges. The next biggest challenge (74%) is not getting enough instructional time with their teachers, followed by the difficulty of working on their own.

Most have access to broadband and devices, but significant minority don’t. 

A major concern in the state and nationally has been to ensure that students have both computers or other devices to access distance learning at home, along with adequate broadband access. There has been a massive push by the state as well as individual districts to provide parents and students with what they need to participate in distance learning.

Strong majorities on the EdSource poll say that unreliable internet access is not a challenge (57%), nor is an inadequate device (69%). However, a substantial number of children still don’t have what they need to fully participate in distance learning. Just over 1 in 10 (11%) say that unreliable internet access is a major challenge, while 31% percent say that it is a minor challenge. Similarly, 11% say inadequate devices is a “major challenge,” compared to 19% who say it is a minor challenge.

Concerns about adequate devices and unreliable internet access are greatest among low and middle income parents. Over half (54%) of parents with incomes under $60,000 cite internet access as a problem, compared with 37% of families with earnings over $150,000. 

Small number of parents embrace “learning pods” to help children with distance learning

When asked about strategies they might use to help manage distance learning, for the most part parents seem stumped as to what to do.

Nearly half of parents (43%) say they don’t know of strategies to help their children. However, the most popular affirmative response is to enlist the help of other family members to supervise distance learning.

This video was produced by NBC 7 San Diego, and is published here courtesy of the station.

Only a small proportion of parents (15%) say they would consider forming “learning pods,” also referred to as “pandemic pods.” These are typically small groups of students organized and paid for by parents. These pods can be organized in different ways, but generally children might meet in a socially distanced, safe location, and be supervised by a teacher, a tutor or parents themselves while they are working online. Fifteen percent of parents also say they might hire a tutor or teacher to supplement their child’s distance learning.

One criticism of pods is that they are likely available only to more affluent families, and that they will contribute to widening achievement gaps, which many educators already feared would be exacerbated as a result of distance learning.

Those concerns are shared by the majority of parents. About 51% say they are very concerned or extremely concerned, while 43% of all voters say they are somewhat concerned or not concerned that pods could widen achievement gaps between higher income and low-income families.

Levels of concern vary considerably depending on the income levels of families, however. Concern is greatest among low-income families (67% of families earning between $30,000 and $60,000 annually say they are very or extremely concerned) and is the lowest (45%) among families earning more than $150,000.

Some families consider changing schools or moving

One in four parents (24%) say they are considering moving their child from public school to a private, parochial or charter school as a result of pandemic related issues.

The backgrounds of parents indicating their desire to change schools varies considerably by political affiliation. Only 8% of Democrats say they are considering moving, compared with 24% of independents and 46% of Republicans.

A similar percentage (22%) said they would consider moving entirely to access different school options.

The sample in the poll included 634 registered voters statewide and an additional 200 voters who are parents or guardians of a child under age 19. The margin of sampling error for the full sample is +/-3.5% at the 95% confidence level, and +/-5.7% for the parent sample. 

For reports on other aspects of the poll, the full topline results and a chart pack on key findings, go here. 

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