Arkansas parents are fine with the quality of online education their kids are getting this school year, but they believe in-person learning is better, according to results from a recent poll.
Online education "is what it is," said Lindsey Selucky, mother of three students -- a 10th grader, an eighth grader and a third grader -- in the Cabot School District. All three of her kids started this school year in person before temporarily shifting to online schooling in October because of quarantine requirements, she said.
Virtual learning wasn't hard for her youngest child, but her high school student's grades suffered during the quarantine, she said.
"Trying to get him to do the work was a task," Selucky said.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette commissioned the poll, which was conducted by telephone Nov. 5-10. The survey of 605 households of public school students has an overall margin of error of plus/minus 4.15 percentage points and plus/minus 4.58 percentage points on questions regarding safety protocols and student safety.
The poll grew out of reporting by the sister newspapers on the effects of the pandemic on kindergarten-through-12th-grade education in Arkansas.
About 68% of parents of online learners said they were either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the quality of education their students are receiving this year, according to the poll.
However, 36% said online was "somewhat" worse, and 21% said it was "significantly" worse when asked to compare learning online with a normal school environment.
About 15% said online was somewhat better or significantly better for their children, while 25% said their students are learning the same online as in a traditional environment.
The margin of error was higher -- plus/minus 6.09 points -- for respondents whose students were learning online either full time or in combination with in-person learning because they made up 46% of the total number surveyed.
Jared Cleveland, superintendent of the Springdale School District, said online school is good for some students. More than 11% of Springdale's 22,000 students in grades K-12 -- or 2,535 students -- were doing school fully online as of this month.
Cleveland firmly believes in face-to-face education.
"It's hard to create a relationship through a screen," he said. "Overall, the relationship building aspect, plus the social and emotional aspect that students need to be with their peers, is much better face-to-face."
Certain aspects of school such as physical education and art, which promote well-rounded students, are hard to replicate in an online environment, he said.
Madalyn Bryson, 14, of Paragould was going to high school in-person at Marmaduke this fall semester until the week before Thanksgiving, when her school shifted to online instruction for a week. After Thanksgiving, she opted to finish the semester online, as the number of positive coronavirus cases in the Marmaduke district escalated.
Working remotely, Madalyn said she missed being able to ask teachers questions and get immediate answers. Working from home, she can email her questions, but it might take hours before she gets a response, she said.
None of her teachers do live online lessons with the students, she said. She also expressed frustration at having to go through several digital platforms or applications to access her online work, but she recognizes that teachers are doing their best.
"They are struggling with this because this is the first time a pandemic like this has happened. I think they are really trying to help us," Madalyn said.
The poll found that most parents were confident in their abilities to assist their kids with online learning, with 76% saying they are either very confident or somewhat confident, according to the poll.
The confidence level was higher among parents with higher incomes and postsecondary educations: 79% of households making more than $46,000 felt confident, compared with 72% of those making less than that, and 82% of parents with college degrees felt confident, compared with 69% of parents without degrees.
Schools also received high marks for how well they've communicated with families about covid-19 and how well they've helped students overcome obstacles to in-person or online learning this fall.
White parents were far more likely than Black parents to rate their schools highly on these matters.
Parental confidence correlates with parents' views on the effectiveness of online learning. Among those who are very confident in their ability to assist their children, 63% believed that their students are learning the same or better than they were in a regular classroom. All other parents thought their students' level of learning is worse online.
Melody Bryson, Madalyn's mother, judged herself not confident at all when it comes to assisting Madalyn, and she rated virtual learning as "significantly worse" than a traditional school environment.
Bryson, a retired saleswoman, worries that students who struggle with finding assignments online and getting them done with less access to their teachers will suffer increased anxiety.
"The child is having to do five different ways to learn this one class, so they're going to five different computer apps to do this one class," she said. "And children are already struggling just to get through the day, with anxiety and bullying and the suicide rates in children, and just growing up is hard enough as it is."
ONLINE IS JUST FINE
Melissa Heath and her husband, Chad, of Prescott have two sons: Ren, an eighth grader; and Lucas in third grade. Both children enrolled in Arkansas Connections Academy, an online charter school, this fall after previously being enrolled in the Prescott School District.
Melissa Heath was among the few respondents to the poll -- only 4% -- who rated online learning significantly better than the regular classroom experience.
Both her sons are autistic. Heath wasn't happy with the way her home school district was dealing with her sons' special needs. Connections Academy is providing the kids what they need, including regular occupational therapy and speech therapy.
"It's working. I see where the kids are learning," she said.
Andrea Lantinga has very little to complain about when it comes to the online education her two children -- Jordan, 13, and Henlee, 9 -- have received through the Fayetteville School District. Lantinga was uncomfortable with the idea of her kids wearing masks all day at school, she said.
Jordan and Henlee are enrolled through their regular zoned schools, not the Fayetteville Virtual Academy, a district-operated, online charter school.
"I think it's very good," Lantinga said about the quality of online education. "It's not perfect. There are some things that could be a little bit better. Fayetteville's done an excellent job with it, and keeping the kids informed and their parents informed of things that are happening."
Regardless, her children likely will return to in-person education once the pandemic is over, she said.
School districts across the state this semester have seen a trend of online learners trickling back into traditional classrooms.
In the Little Rock School District, for example, the number of K-12 students learning remotely fell from 11,422 in September to 9,502 as of Dec. 14; in Rogers, virtual enrollment dropped from 3,830 students at the start of the school year to 2,514 this month, according to data provided by both districts.
Smaller districts, like Lincoln in Northwest Arkansas, have seen online enrollment decline, as well.
"I think we were close to 30% in August opting for virtual, and now we're right at 20%," said Lincoln Superintendent Mary Ann Spears. The rural district has about 1,000 students.
"Connectivity is our biggest barrier," Spears said. "We have devices to give them, and we have hot spots, but even those aren't cutting it. There are places in our district where internet is very sketchy. Parents maybe want to make that choice, but it's hard because they can't get internet service."
ONLINE SCHOOL, RACE
Among the parents polled, 54% indicated that their students are learning in-person only, 18% said their students are learning online full time, and 28% have a combination of in-person and online learners.
Parents grouped under the "combination" response included those with several children, some of whom are learning online and some of whom are attending school in person. It also included parents with children who had a mixture of the two models this fall.
Black families are participating full time in online learning at a higher rate, 34%, than white families. Another 33% of Black families have a combination of in-person and virtual students.
Ryan Davis, a Black man who made an unsuccessful run for the Little Rock School Board this fall, has three children enrolled in the district and learning from home this semester. They are in kindergarten, third grade and fifth grade.
The decision to keep the kids home was easy, he said. He and his wife considered sending the older two to school, but that was contingent on a comprehensive plan from the district for reopening schools.
"It just seemed kind of messy," he said.
Sen. Joyce Elliott, a retired educator from Little Rock, said she thinks Black parents are especially protective of their children, in part because of high-profile cases in which young Black people have been mistreated by the justice system.
"We can look at our schools, where so much of the prison pipeline begins," Elliott said. "We have policed our schools too much, and something that should be an infraction that gets you sent to the principal's office often gets you in the hands of police. Now if you take all of that, just life experiences, and then something comes along as inscrutable to people as covid, there is this reaction, 'I'll just keep my child at home.'"
Johnny Key, the state's education commissioner, said he's not surprised by the poll results showing parents generally are satisfied with online learning, but also feels it's not as good as an in-person education.
"I think parents understand and are hoping that this is going to be a temporary situation because of covid. And next year, when school starts, if the pandemic has subsided, I believe most of these students will return to the traditional on-site setting," Key said.
One issue this semester has been that many teachers have had to learn on the fly how to teach online. Many teachers also are trying to balance in-person and online students at the same time, a situation that has substantially increased their workload, he said.
The poll showed 69% of parents of online learners are either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the quality of education their students are getting.
Meanwhile, 62% of parents of online learners are very or somewhat satisfied with the amount of direct instruction their students are getting.
Some families are discovering that online education is good for their children, so the demand for online will remain, Key said. The state is working with school districts that want to improve their online options for the future, he said.
There are obstacles to overcome. One is access to the internet, a problem especially prevalent in rural areas. In addition, the state has found that some kids struggle to understand how to use their electronic devices to complete assignments, Key said.
In 108 of the state's 262 school districts, about 5,000 students enrolled in online learning are either failing, not logging into their classes or are unable to be found by their districts, Key reported earlier this month.
That statistic highlights why he and Gov. Asa Hutchinson insisted on opening schools this fall. Too many more students would have fallen through the cracks if schools had remained fully online like they were for two months last spring, Key said.
Seventy-two percent of parents rated their schools either excellent or good when asked how well they had done communicating this fall, while 17% rated them average. About 12% rated them either poor or very poor.
Charter school families rated communication from their schools slightly higher than those in traditional public schools, 79% to 70%. About 11% of those polled said they have at least one child enrolled in a charter school.
Black families again scored schools much lower in the quality of communication with 23% giving their local districts excellent ratings compared with 48% of white families.
Elliott said if the communication question were asked during nonpandemic times, it probably would receive similar results. Within any organization, including schools, communication typically is designed for or by the majority group, which is usually not people of color, she said.
School officials may think they're doing a great job communicating with patrons, but for some, sending a notice home with a child or pointing to the school's website may not be enough, she said.
"There has to be follow-up," Elliott said.
Three-quarters of full-time, in-person learners rated communication as excellent, compared with only 31% of full-time, online students and 36% of those doing a combination of online and in-person.
Lisa Hodgkiss of Jonesboro has two sons, ages 6 and 7, enrolled in the Jonesboro School District. Her sons are in the first and second grade and attending school in person. Hodgkiss rated the schools as excellent in communication.
"They are doing a wonderful job of keeping parents informed as far as the pandemic goes," she said. "We have great communication with our teachers."
The poll also sought opinions on how well the schools have helped students and families overcome obstacles to online or in-person learning this fall.
Most parents were pleased with 62% rating the schools as excellent or good on this issue; 24% rated their schools as average and 11% rated them as either poor or very poor. Nearly 3% were unsure or declined to answer.
Full-time, in-person instruction families were happier with their schools than others. Seventy-two percent of in-person instruction families rated their schools as excellent or good compared with 48% of full-time, online learning and 52% of combination learning.
Black families again differed from white families with 38% of Black respondents rating their schools' assistance as excellent or good, compared with 67% of white respondents.
The level of satisfaction parallels income levels with 66% of families earning more than $46,000 rating assistance as excellent or good compared with 48% of those making less than $46,000.
Nearly 92% of respondents said their schools offered families the use of an electronic device at home, such as a laptop, tablet or hot spot. Device availability was consistent across racial, income and geographic lines.
About 69% said they borrowed such devices from their schools.
About 32% of parents said their kids' participation in group activities such as sports, band and choir has changed this year because of covid-19. Another 62% said their participation has not changed, and 7% were unsure or declined to answer.
Rates were higher among full-time, in-person instruction students where 70% reported participating in group activities as they have done in past years. The figure for full-time, online learners was 37%.
Richard Burrows is chief executive officer of the Arkansas Arts Academy, a charter school with 1,200 students in grades K-12 in Rogers. The pandemic has meant some changes in how students practice various art forms, he said.
"I would say it's a 50-50 deal at this point, depending on the art form, as to whether or not you get to have group experiences in the arts, but we don't have the performances that we've had before," Burrows said. "We haven't had the winter holiday program because there's no place to bring students together for rehearsal."
The school's theater department did a fully online production of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"filmed entirely over Zoom, with the students playing their parts in separate rooms with nothing but their computers and green screens to keep them company.
"I thought that was really ingenious," Burrows said.
Poll takes stock of education in state
How do parents of children in grades kindergarten through 12 in Arkansas public schools feel about the quality of the education their children are receiving during the pandemic? What do those parents and guardians think about the safety of returning to in-person classes and about the information they're getting from school officials?
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette commissioned Impact Management Group, a Little Rock public relations and public opinion research firm, to conduct a poll asking those and other questions.
The firm conducted the poll Nov. 5-10. The 605 Arkansans who responded each identified themselves as a parent or guardian of a child enrolled in K-12 traditional public schools or public charter schools.
The margin of error for this poll is plus/minus 4.15 percentage points. That means a given response rate is within 4.15 points of what you could expect if every parent or guardian of school-age children in Arkansas had been surveyed.
The margin of error is slightly higher for subgroups within the survey, such as parents and guardians of students who participated in online learning full time or in combination with in-person learning.
Results have been weighted based on ethnicity. Weighting is a statistical method for assuring responses by race, for example, match the composition of the larger population.
Approximately 80% of respondents were contacted via cellphone and about 20% by landline phone.
About 'Covid Classroom'
"Covid Classroom" is an ongoing series examining the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on kindergarten-through-12th-grade public education across Arkansas. The project is reported and presented by the news staffs of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, with the support of the Walton Family Foundation.
The series is produced independently, with no input in the research, writing or editing from the funding organization.
All elements of the project will be available online for nonsubscribers.
"Covid Classroom" is one of several similar projects around the country involving 16 news organizations and 50 newsrooms.
To listen to a podcast about the series, visit: nwaonline.com/122720CovidWrapupPodcast/
CORRECTION: In a poll commissioned by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 41.7% of families with students learning in person said their schools were doing an excellent job helping students overcome obstacles this fall; 30.6% said they were doing good; 17.7% said they were doing average; 3.5% said they were doing poor; 2.9% said they were doing very poor; and 3.6% said they were unsure or refused to answer. On the same poll question, 21% of families with full-time online students said schools were doing excellent; 26.7% said they were doing good; 31.3% said they were doing average; 11.6% said they were doing poor; 7.7% said they were doing very poor; and 1.7% said they were unsure or refused to answer. An earlier version of a graphic in this story gave incorrect percentages for some poll responses.
Dave Perozek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NWADaveP.