Despite COVID, most Tennessee parents are upbeat about school this year, poll says

Students line up during a summer camp at Benny Bills Elementary School in Gallatin, Tennessee, on June 29, 2021. (Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat)

A month into the new academic year, three-fourths of Tennessee parents said school was going well for their child and 69% said their student felt safe attending classes in person, even as many districts closed temporarily under the strain of COVID’s highly contagious delta variant.

Poll results released Tuesday also show that nearly half of the state’s parents worry their students have fallen behind academically during the pandemic, with those concerns even more widespread among suburban parents and parents of high schoolers.

The poll — commissioned by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, also known as SCORE — offered some surprises on parents’ perceptions of the beginning of the third straight school year affected by the pandemic. The survey was conducted Sept. 1-5 with a representative sampling of 500 registered voters and 300 public school parents across the state, where most students started back to school in early August.

About 77% of parents surveyed were positive about how the 2021-22 school year was going for their child.

At the time, at least 18 of Tennessee’s 147 school systems had shut down for up to a week to try to tame the virus as sickness or quarantine sidelined too many teachers to adequately staff classrooms. And a third of all Tennessee COVID cases were among children up to age 18. In addition, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn had just begun granting seven-day waivers to let some schools shift temporarily to virtual learning under a new COVID response plan.

Since then, Tennessee has reported more new coronavirus cases than any other state, relative to its population — an average of 109 for every 100,000 people, according to a New York Times database

Data released Monday by the state health department shows the number of deaths for people under age 20 has doubled to 20 since the school year began.

And at least 14 public school employees who contracted COVID have died this academic year, based on a report about confirmed deaths by Tennessee Lookout, an online news organization. The report notes that it is unknown whether any employee was exposed to COVID at school or outside of school.

SCORE officials believe parents feel good about more in-person learning happening than last school year, when districts had blanket authority to shift to virtual learning to respond to local virus surges. A new state rule requires schools to provide in-person instruction and tap into stockpiled days if they have to close. Even with Tennessee’s COVID numbers, Gov. Bill Lee’s administration hasn’t backed off of that position.

“The positive feelings parents expressed about the start of this school year are a testament to the hard but essential work the state’s teachers and school and district leaders have done to support in-person instruction in very difficult circumstances,” SCORE President and CEO David Mansouri said in a statement.

Teresa Wasson, a spokesperson for SCORE, added that polling from the last two years shows two-thirds of Tennessee parents think remote learning is worse for their students than in-person learning.

Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association, agreed that in-person learning is best and said it’s great parents are feeling positive about the school year. But she also cited a disconnect between what the survey shows and what she’s hearing from educators on the ground who continue to respond to disruptions.

“People need to understand that the pandemic is taking a toll on educators in a state where there’s already a teacher shortage,” Brown told Chalkbeat. “Teachers are exhausted, burned out, and struggling mentally and emotionally.”

This year’s poll had similar results to last year over parent concerns about pandemic-related learning lags. But this is the first pandemic year that Tennessee has had the benefit of statewide test scores, which were released a month before the latest poll was conducted. In 2020, testing was canceled nationwide due to the virus.

Tennessee’s scores showed an overall decrease in proficiency of 5 percentage points since 2019 under the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, also known as TCAP. The scores declined across all subjects and grades, with the sharpest drops among students who have trailed their peers historically and learned remotely the longest. 

SCORE’s poll delved into non-pandemic education issues too.

Most people surveyed, including 71% of parents and 65% of voters, believe that Tennessee public schools don’t receive enough funding. And even greater percentages of those surveyed said they would support the state increasing funding for K-12 education.

The poll also showed strong statewide support for continuing annual state testing, which has been used in Tennessee since 1988, to know if students are meeting education standards in reading, writing and math.

Based in Nashville, SCORE is a research and advocacy group founded in 2009 by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

The group’s poll was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and had a margin of error of just over 4% for the registered voter sample and over 5% for the public school parents.

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