Voters in six swing states overwhelmingly want schools to reopen, but many think holding in-person classes will be unsafe as the coronavirus pandemic rips through the United States, according to a new CNBC/Change Research poll.
The choice of whether to send students back to schools this year, part or full time, has become the latest U.S. political flash point as daily coronavirus cases hit new records. While the transition to online learning has proved daunting and parents have struggled to find child care or work while helping to educate their children, resuming classes without proper safeguards risks rampant disease transmission among students, teachers and parents.
The CNBC/Change Research survey asked respondents to select two activities the government should work hardest to reopen safely from a list that included including K-12 schools, airlines, beaches, sports venues, retail stores and bars. Nearly 3 in 4 respondents — 74% — chose day care and K-12 schools. Education trumped all other choices among the likely voters surveyed in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — states that will likely determine the outcome of November's presidential election.
An equal share of 33% picked retail stores and public transportation, while 26% answered indoor dining. Air travel, beaches and "professional sports and entertainment venues" followed at 11%, 10% and 9%, respectively. Bars were the lowest priority, as only 5% of voters said the government should work hardest to reopen them.
Though respondents want to see schools open, they worry about the ability to hold classes. A plurality of swing-state voters, 43%, said in-person classes will not be safe for students this fall.
Another 33% answered that full-time in-person classes will be safe, while 13% said the same about part-time in-person classes. Voters logged nearly identical answers when asked whether reopening schools would be safe for faculty and parents.
A larger share of parents than those without children said they believe it is safe to restart in-person classes. For instance, 39% of parents consider it safe for kids to go back into school, versus 30% of non-parents.
In Florida and Arizona, two of the current virus hot spots, voters are less comfortable with reopening schools than respondents in the four other states. A majority of respondents in Florida, 52%, said in-person classes will not be safe for students, while 50% of voters in Arizona said the same.
The poll released Wednesday surveyed 4,332 likely voters across the six states from Friday to Sunday. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points.
The pandemic has forced state and local governments into unprecedented decisions on how to educate children without worsening a public health crisis. School districts around the country have opted for a range of plans, from online-only learning to a mix of remote and in-person schooling or a return to regular classes.
Los Angeles and San Diego schools, for instance, will operate only online as the coronavirus case count climbs in California. New York City plans to teach students in person for a few days a week and remotely the rest of the time.
Congress is preparing to include money for the equipment and personnel needed to safely reopen schools in its next coronavirus aid bill. Lawmakers hope to pass legislation by early next month. On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said a developing plan would put a "heavy emphasis" on education.
"We need to find a way to safely get back to work, and we feel, I feel, like the federal government will have to play a financial role in helping to make that possible," he told reporters in Kentucky, according to NBC News.
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has pressured schools to reopen as he sees a return to normalcy as a boon to his reelection chances. He even threatened to pull federal education funding if schools do not open this fall.
"The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!" he wrote in a tweet earlier this month.
The move likely would not play well in the six states Trump needs to carry to win another term in the White House. Only 38% of respondents to the CNBC/Change Research poll said they support the idea, while 60% said they oppose it. A majority, 55%, responded that they "strongly" oppose cutting off funding for schools that do not open.
Colleges also have tough decisions to make about how students return to class. Some higher learning institutions have also opted for online-only classes or a mix of in-person and remote learning.
Asked in the survey if students should pay full tuition for virtual classes, only 16% of respondents said they should, while 72% said they should not.