Talk about conflicted. The biggest public policy question in the COVID-19 pandemic besides masks is what to do with public education. Children finished up the last school year on line, or at least those who have ready access to the Internet. Others, usually from lower-income families and disproportionately from ethnic minorities, either had to scrounge access or do without. The disruption to education threatens yet another class divide in a country that’s had its fill of it.

The Trump administration wants public schools reopened, but do parents? According to a new ABC News/Ipsos poll, a majority oppose sending their children to school — but a slightly larger majority worries about them slipping even further behind in education, too:

School disruption brought on by the coronavirus pandemic is fueling anxiety in a majority (59%) of parents who are concerned that their child is falling behind in their education, even while only 44% of adults with school-age children are willing to send their children to school, a new ABC News/Ipsos poll released Friday finds.

A majority of all American adults (55%) are against public schools in their community reopening with in-school instruction in the fall. Nearly four in 10 parents are not concerned about their children making educational gains because of COVID-19.

ABC reports that their poll impacted the messaging from the White House:

On Thursday, after the poll was out of the field, Trump started to move away from his hard line on school reopenings, saying that the decision should fall on the shoulders of the nation’s governors.

“In cities or states that are current hot spots, and you’ll see that in the map behind me, districts may need to delay reopening for a few weeks, and that’s possible,” he said. “That’ll be up to governors. The decision should be made based on the data and the facts on the grounds in each community, but every district should be actively making preparations to open.”

Er, no, that’s not a “move away” from Trump’s “hard line.” The White House has made it clear all along that districts and even schools might have to adjust their schedules if transmissions increased in those neighborhoods. Trump still is pressuring those districts to reopen overall, and the White House and the Senate GOP may still tie federal educational funds in the new Phase 4 relief bill to reopenings.

As they should, by the way. If schools don’t plan to reopen, then they won’t need the cash. In fact, at some point, funds for closed public schools should probably be rerouted back to parents (as vouchers, perhaps) so that they can find resources for educating their children.

The problem Trump faces is that confidence in sending children back to school is actually falling. At the beginning of June, a 54/45 majority said they would send their children to school, but two weeks later it was 49/51. One month later, it’s 44/56. Whether this has to do with the second wave or a lack of confidence in local schools, parents are getting less and less comfortable with the idea.

At the same time, however, Americans are much more willing to go back to work, 78/22, only a slight change from early June’s 82/17. In fact, they’re still willing to engage economically on a range of activities, while remaining largely opposed to others. Essential is key to understanding the dynamics:

  • Grocery shopping: 94/6, unchanged since June
  • Haircuts: 67/32
  • Eat at a restaurant: 54/46
  • Stay in a hotel: 51/48
  • Go to church: 51/49

But …

  • Fly on an airplane: 33/66
  • Attend a sporting event: 22/78
  • Go to a gym or health club: 28/72
  • Go to a movie theater: 27/73

So is public school not essential? Yes it is, but people are worried about their children’s health, and aren’t willing to risk it quite the same way as they are willing to take risks themselves. Adults know how to manage risks, but children are children and don’t have a good grasp on proper hygiene. Parents are likely less confident in schools’ ability to enforce that discipline.

Partisanship probably has something to do with it too:

The president’s initial posture on reopening schools is backed by a majority of those within his own party, with 79% of Republicans supporting schools reopening with in-person teaching in the fall. Only about one in five Democrats, and 40% of independents say the same.

If this is serving as a proxy for Trump support — and it might be — perhaps Trump might want to rethink the idea of demanding that public schools reopen. A move to a voucher plan might be more popular, and not just in the COVID-19 context. It might be the only way to get lower-income households connected to educational alternatives that will allow those children to keep up — especially if the teachers’ unions keep balking at returning to the classroom.