Classrooms at Lafayette Elementary School include sanitizing stations to prevent the spread of coronavirus. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

School districts have been paralyzed by two competing questions in recent months. First, how badly are students falling behind while schools are closed? And second, how badly will coronavirus spread if they return?

No one knows the answer to either question, but the prospects for fallout on either side of the ledger are frightening. We know children are falling behind; some far more than others. To add to the fright, some children live in unstable homes where food is hard to come by. On the other side, what if returning to school in mass numbers causes COVID-19 deaths to increase – especially in communities of color that have already been hardest hit?

A new poll from Voice of San Diego – which asked respondents to weigh in on several questions about educational quality – shows local residents are particularly torn by the same fears. The poll, conducted by FM 3 Research, asked 712 county residents a wide range of questions between Oct. 8 – 22. It had a 3.7 percent margin of error.

A full 84 percent of respondents were “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” students would fall behind academically. Coronavirus fears were nearly as high. Seventy-five percent said they were concerned the virus would spread when students return to class.

The survey also asked parents – 185 parents in the survey were parents of children aged 5 – 19 – to grade their children’s online learning experience.

The survey also asked residents their thoughts on the quality of education, generally, and to grade online learning during the pandemic. Some of the questions elicited noticeably different answers among racial and ideological groups.

For instance, half of the respondents were asked to weigh in on whether the quality of K-12 education is a problem. Fifty-four percent of those respondents said the quality of K-12 education is a “very serious” or “extremely serious” problem. But among Black and Latino residents the percentage was much higher.

The results aren’t necessarily surprising. Schools in some parts of the city, particularly those in communities of color, have languished for decades. And many Black families in the southeastern part of the city do not trust San Diego Unified to do what’s right for their children.

Twenty-seven percent of parents gave online learning a “D” or “F.” The most commonly assigned grade was “B.”

Another interesting split occurred among self-identified liberals, moderates and conservatives on the question of reopening schools. How concerned residents were about the virus’s spread was strongly tied to their political beliefs.

Among liberals, 61 percent said they were “very concerned” the virus would spread when students return to in-person classes. Among moderates, 40 percent shared the same level of concern. And among conservatives, the figure dropped to 21 percent.

Black, Latino and Asian residents were also more concerned the virus might spread when students return to school. Among Black residents, 54 percent were “very concerned.” Among Asian residents, 50 percent showed the same concern level. Among Latino residents that figure was 45 percent and for White residents it was 38 percent.

Communities of color have experienced higher infection and death rates all across the United States.

Some studies have shown younger children are less likely to be infected by or spread coronavirus – which has led many experts to conclude that bringing elementary school students back to school can be done relatively safely. Recently, some epidemiologists have suggested bringing younger children back earlier may not be as safe as previously thought.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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