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Poll shows racial split on whether in-person schooling is safe for fall

The last day of classes at Samuel Adams Elementary School in East Boston was in mid-March. COVID-19 has hit that part of the city particularly hard.
The last day of classes at Samuel Adams Elementary School in East Boston was in mid-March. COVID-19 has hit that part of the city particularly hard.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

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Massachusetts residents are starkly divided along racial lines about whether they believe it’s safe to resume in-person instruction in schools this fall.

A full 60 percent of Black and Latino respondents said they did not think school buildings could reopen “in a way that keeps most kids and adults safe from the coronavirus,” according to a Suffolk University poll for WGBH News, The Boston Globe, MassLive, and the State House News Service.

Among white respondents, 44 percent said they thought schools couldn’t reopen safely. There was a similar divide between rural and urban respondents, with many more city residents saying they did not feel comfortable with a return to in-person instruction. Suburban respondents fell in the middle.

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Black and Latino residents in Massachusetts test positive for the coronavirus at three times the rate of white residents, according to recent state data. Their death rates are also significantly higher.

“COVID-19 is affecting people differently,” said David Paleologos, the director of Suffolk University’s Political Research Center, which conducted the poll. “You’ve got rural (residents) and Republicans responding that things should go back to normal, and then you’ve got people who are part of a different America: Black, Hispanic and urban respondents … are being impacted in a different way and are afraid.”

Yet overall, Massachusetts residents of all racial groups are somewhat split on the question of whether schools can reopen safely. A slim majority doubted whether schools can reopen and keep students and adults from contracting the virus.

The WGBH News/Globe/Suffolk poll surveyed 500 residents across the state by cellphone and landline between June 18 and June 21.

The shutdowns have led to a crash course in online learning that has challenged even the most well-resourced school systems across the state and country. On average, students could lose up to a third of a year of progress in reading and up to half a year in math, according to a national study by scholars at Brown University and the University of Virginia.

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With residents divided on the risks of going back — and whether the risks are worth taking for the sake of learning — officials say schools may have to provide a range of options. That could include offering largely remote learning, partially remote, and minimally remote.

“That’s part of the challenge,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. Some families might not go back at all or take a wait and see approach, he said. “Then there’s a sizable number of parents insisting that their children go back.”

Some of those parents have banded together. An online petition with more than 1,000 signatures started by parents in the affluent town of Holliston, which is mostly white, asks the governor to bring students back to school full time in the fall.

Billerica resident Lori Toce signed the petition after receiving it by e-mail from another parent. “As much as everyone was trying, I felt like not much was accomplished” in remote learning, said Toce, who has teenagers going into 9th and 11th grades. Toce’s 87-year-old mother survived COVID this spring, so she said she understands “it’s a scary disease.” But since young people appear to be at lower risk of getting sick, it’s a reasonable gamble in her view.

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Yet Teresa Castillo of Worcester, a poll respondent who has three adopted children, said she would prefer fully online instruction in the fall due to health concerns.

The Dominican immigrant has acquaintances across the state who have become seriously ill from the coronavirus, and she worries about the risks to her family. She fears her children, ages 11, 12 and 13, won’t wear masks at school.

Schools “shouldn’t open until January,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “I don’t want to risk my children.”

The spring wasn’t easy. For nearly two months the family didn’t have a computer, and her three children shared her smartphone during the day to attend live Zoom classes or submit assignments.

In May, the family received a school-issued laptop for the children to share.

Education experts worry about inequity made worse by the pandemic.

“We’ll have to figure out how to do remote learning better,” said Natasha Ushomirsky, the state director for Massachusetts at the Education Trust, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for children of color and students living in poverty. “That will require supporting teachers differently … and much, much closer work with families. Otherwise, we know how this story ends — the disparities in student learning experiences that are already staggering will increase dramatically.”

The state plans to release more complete plans for reopening schools soon. So far, education officials’ guidance has suggested that class sizes might be limited to 10 students and two adults so they can fit inside a classroom, seated at least 6 feet apart. In recommendations for ordering masks and other protective gear, the state suggested that districts should plan for various scenarios involving students attending school in person a quarter of the time, half, or full time.

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Interviews with about a half dozen people across the state who responded to the poll show how much personal circumstances affect their views on school reopening.

Timothy Lavoie, a single father in Marlborough, said he struggled during the pandemic to both do his job as a software engineer and give his 7-year-old son the “attention that he needs.”

He wants his son to return to school — or be occupied somehow — so that he can focus on his job, which he believes is tenuous now because of the economic impact of the pandemic. Yet he readily admits that he’s nervous about a return to in-person instruction. He is hoping school staff will take temperatures before children enter the building and keep students separated.

“People are going to get sick,” he said. “We just need to employ all the safeguards we can, until hopefully somebody comes up with a vaccine.”

Berkley resident Vincent Waldron said he likely won’t want his daughter to return to in-person classes at her private school. He believes he’s particularly vulnerable to coronavirus after Lyme disease damaged some of his organs. Yet Waldron is waiting to see what happens with the numbers over the summer and concedes that his daughter, who will be a senior, might be fiercely opposed to staying at home.

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“It would be very difficult to keep her home … if the school opens and all her buddies are going,” he said.


Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.