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As Massachusetts leaders and school officials grapple with how to make up for lost learning from the pandemic, a clear majority of parents say robust summer school offerings need to be a part of the solution.
Fifty-seven percent prefer summer school to other alternatives — such as a longer school day next year — as a way of making up for lost school time, according to a poll of a diverse group of about 1,500 parents of school-age children released Wednesday by the MassINC Polling Group.
The support for summer school extended across all racial and socioeconomic groups polled, but was especially strong among Black and Latino parents; 73 percent and 70 percent, respectively, preferred summer school.
“If you don’t want this to be a lost generation, then kids need more time,” said Juan Gonzalez of Marshfield, one of the parents surveyed and a strong proponent of summer school for his 8-year-old son.
The poll, the third in a series documenting parent perspectives on education issues, was conducted in February and March in both English and Spanish. It was funded by the Boston-based Barr Foundation, which also provides financial support for the Globe’s Great Divide team focused on education inequality.
The poll found deep concerns among Massachusetts families about academic regression during the pandemic — but also mental health. Nearly two-thirds of the state’s parents say they fear for their children’s emotional well-being.
“It just goes to show what a universal impact this year has had on kids from all kinds of families,” said Maeve Duggan, research director at MassINC Polling Group.
A full 63 percent of white residents said they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about mental and emotional well-being, compared to 52 percent of Black and Latino parents, and 57 percent of Asian parents.
Wealthier families are particularly concerned about the pandemic’s negative impact on their children’s academic, social and emotional well-being. Among respondents who earn more than $100,000 a year, for instance, 58 percent said their child’s academic learning has been negatively affected; that compares to 41 percent of respondents making less than $50,000 a year.
Parents’ concerns come to light as the state is pushing to reopen schools for full-time learning. Many districts are scrambling to comply with a state-mandated return for elementary and middle school students in April. There’s no date set for high school students’ return; and emergency legislation, backed by teachers unions, aims to delay reopening until more teachers are vaccinated. Flush with federal stimulus money, some districts are starting to design beefed-up summer school programing while others have yet to announce any plans.
For Gonzalez in Marshfield, getting children back to school five days a week is a priority for his son’s well-being. The child has “flatlined” academically and regressed socially, frustrated that his classmates don’t understand things he says during Zoom meetings. “I see it in my son’s eyes. It looks like he’s gone through a war zone,” said Gonzalez, describing his son’s demeanor after a day of remote learning.
The boy recently went back to school four days a week, and Gonzalez sees some improvements. But he believes his son and many other children will need emotional counseling to recover from the trauma of the year.
“This is the greatest mental health crisis of a generation,” said Gonzalez.
Across the state in Williamstown, Jeffrey Johnson, who was also surveyed, has similar concerns about his 14-year-old son. The ninth grader has spent the year exclusively online, with no access to his usual sport activities. His grades tanked, and then, in January, the teen shared suicidal thoughts. “He’s acknowledged that this COVID has really screwed him up,” said Johnson.
Johnson says his son is feeling better and will soon return to the physical classroom, but the father still worries about long-term effects of a year spent at home.
Both Gonzalez and Johnson support summer school. Gonzalez hopes that it will bolster both his son’s academic learning and his social skills. And Johnson said it’s a badly-needed step to help students return to routine and a sense of “normalcy.” He added that it should be required of all students to avoid increasing inequity further.
Polled parents were evenly split on the option of starting the next school year earlier than usual. And a significant majority of parents opposed extending school days next year.
While most families say the past year has negatively affected their children’s academic learning, a sizable minority reported the opposite.
A third of Latino parents, for instance say their children’s academic performance has improved in the virtual classroom. And nearly 30 percent of Black parents cited the benefits of remote learning (compared to 21 percent and 20 percent of white and Asian parents, respectively).
Dorchester resident Clesia Ramos, who participated in the poll, said her third-grade daughter has thrived learning at home. Shy by nature, she used to complain about other students commenting on what she wore or how she looked. One time, her daughter came to blows with her classmates. Teachers were always calling home to complain.
“She was too distracted by other children in the class,” said Ramos. But this year, the child’s teachers have had only positive news to share. Moreover, her daughter started the year behind grade level and is now ahead of children her age. Ramos looks forward to her daughter returning to a physical classroom next year, but worries that some of the old dynamics might return.
The pandemic has revealed how school as usual hasn’t worked for many students, said Duggan. Policy makers and school leaders should scrutinize instances where students excelled in working remotely and “identify those positives and carry them forward.”
Natasha Ushomirsky, the state director for Massachusetts’ Education Trust, which helped design the poll, says she hopes policy makers don’t overlook the fact that many parents plan to keep their children at home even after more schools reopen this spring. Among parents of students currently studying remotely, 56 percent said the state should focus on improving virtual learning rather than bringing more students back in person.
That means it’s imperative that educators and leaders work simultaneously to help children transition back to in-person learning while also shoring up supports for those who remain at home. “What’s going to happen for those students?” she said. For those who don’t return right away: “How are we going to ensure quality?”
This story has been updated to reflect revised data from MassINC showing that 56 percent of parents whose children are currently studying remotely prefer the state focus on improving remote instruction over bringing more students back in-person.
Sarah Carr of the Globe staff contributed material to this report.