PENNSYLVANIA — The debate over when and how to reopen schools in Pennsylvania during the coronavirus pandemic is in full throttle. While uncertainty looms about the near future of education in Pennsylvania, one thing is certain — the public opinion about reopening schools is equally divided.

On Monday, Patch sites across Pennsylvania shared a non-scientific poll asking our readers to share their thoughts on the issue.

We asked: Should schools reopen? If they do, would you send your children? And what about masks? Should kids be expected to wear them throughout the school day?

We received nearly 11,000 responses to our poll. The results show a near-even split on sentiment about returning to the classroom during the coronavirus pandemic, which in Pennsylvania has so far infected more than 96,600 people and resulted in 6,931 deaths.

Our poll also found that while many parents support a return to the classroom, putting their children back on that school bus won’t come without trepidation. While there was widespread support for a shift back to in-person learning, most parents who took our poll said they harbor substantial fears about children in school as the virus circulates.

Students have not been in the classroom since mid-March, when the onset of the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to shutter their buildings and move to online learning.

Gov. Tom Wolf has determined that Pennsylvania public schools in the state’s yellow and green phases can resume in-person instruction in the fall, provided their district creates an approved safety plan. But nearly half who responded to our poll said they do not believe students should return to the classroom just yet.

Of the 10,803 responses to this question, about 43 percent said students should “absolutely not” return for in-person learning this fall. But 39 percent had the opposing opinion, saying they “definitely” should. About 18 percent of respondents were unsure.

Those who said they would not support an in-person reopening were split on when the appropriate time would be to have the students back in the classrooms.

As a follow up, we asked: If you answered no, when do you believe children should return to the classroom?

Of the 5,760 responses, 41.5 percent said student should only go back when there are safe and effective treatments. Nearly 29 percent said they want to wait for a vaccine. Eighteen percent said they would be comfortable with returning when coronavirus cases have diminished in the community.

Nearly 12 percent provided no preference, simply stating they should not return this year.

We also asked: If given the choice, would you send your child to in-person class or choose virtual learning?

Again, the responses were nearly evenly split: 39 percent said they would choose virtual learning, while nearly 36 percent said they would pick in-person instruction. Some respondents — 22 percent — said they would prefer a hybrid option.

About 6 percent remain unsure about this question.

Now onto thoughts about safety and precautions.

Pennsylvania has issued preliminary guidance from the state on the school safety plans and local health departments have followed up with guidance tailored for their communities.

Officials have said the state’s mask mandate will extend to schools. That mandate states everyone must wear a mask whenever they leave home and are unable to maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet.

And while masks — and people’s views on wearing them — have taken on political overtones throughout the progression of the pandemic, public opinion on masks in school settings was clear in our poll. Nearly 50 percent of respondents say all students should wear masks all day.

Nearly 31 percent of respondents support mask wearing in some school situations, including on the bus and when social distancing isn’t possible. Just about 15 percent of those who responded said they simply do not support masks in a school setting.

Five percent believe only older children should be expected to wear face coverings.

Parents also expressed doubts that children would be able to effectively social distance.

We asked: Can school children be expected to effectively social distance?

Nearly 56 percent said no, while 24 percent said yes. Twenty percent said they were not sure.

For the final question, we asked parents: On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest, how great are your fears of sending your kids back to school?

The consensus here was clear: most parents are highly concerned even if they want kids to return to the buildings this fall.

More than 32 precent ranked their fears a 5 — the highest level. Just about 19 percent ranked their fears at the lowest level. Seventeen precent did not select a level, as they do not have school-aged children.

We also received thousands of comments from survey respondents, who expressed in varying degrees their beliefs on whether they think schools should be open.

Here is a look at some of the comment highlights:

  • Not enough studies have been done on Childers and Covid. Kids have been isolated for most of the pandemic, putting them back into the classroom without more research could be devastating. What about the teachers, they are at risk of serious complications. Until we have a vaccine or viable treatment it would be irresponsible to send teachers and students back to the classroom.

  • Children and adults build immunities everyday. I understand the severity and impact of Covid, however, how can our children and even healthy adults and the elderly live our lives locked up? We come into contact with 60,000+ germs a day. Which our bodies then recognize. We then build an immunity to said germs or virus’s. Of course Covid is a different thing all together, what about the other things we need to build immunity to as well? So, we lock ourselves and children away? Sadly, this virus…these tragic deaths, this whole new world we are forced to now live and abide by… is weird. It’s all weird, and nobody seems to know anything. Until we get facts with truth, let us all live our lives. Let businesses stay opened, protect the weak and sick.. everyone else should be free. This is America for god sake. Land of the free.

  • I think it’s important that schools open safely. Kids should be at least 3 to 6 feet apart and masks should me mandatory when traveling throughout school. The hybrid model seems the safest.

  • If the current surge is responsible for our not having followed the CDC guidelines before re-opening, it is life threatening to think we can send children a back to school

  • More concerned for mental health of being isolated at home.

  • I’m not sure how parents are supposed to resume work if their kids are not in school. And what about the health and safety of the teachers and staff?

  • As a high school student, we need the schools to open. If it was rough for me as a 17-year-old to learn virtually, I can’t imagine what younger ones were going through. We have to stop being full of fear, and get our kids in the classroom.

  • Studies from Europe have shown not only is Covid-19 of little risk to children, but they also do not transmit to adults in high numbers. Let’s protect those at risk — seniors — and stop harming those who are not at risk and pose no risk — our children.

  • As an immuno-compromised mom, I fear for my child’s mental health should she not return to an in-person setting, but for my own health if she is required.

  • Should have a choice to opt in or out. Schools need to be open to give families a choice. I firmly believe that our educators and communities can rise to the occasion. We at least have to try.

  • Kids need to be in school. No masks. No fear.

  • Way too many unknowns about COVID-19 to jeopardize the children and the teacher and administration. Online learning works look at all the people that have gotten MBA and did Grad courses online.

  • The countries that have this well under control have tried to open schools, and it’s led to outbreaks and immediate shutdowns every.single.time. And we’re in far worse shape than any of them (they have low incidents/positivity, great testing and contact tracing). This would be genocide to try in our country.

Note: This survey was not a scientific poll, with random sampling and margins of error, but can be considered a broad indicator of public sentiment.

This article originally appeared on the Doylestown Patch

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