Coronavirus: Reopening, Schools, And The Government Response

Key Findings

  • Amid a surging coronavirus pandemic and record numbers of new cases in many states, the latest KFF Health Tracking Poll finds most U.S. adults feel the worst effects of the pandemic are yet to come, and seven in ten (including four in ten Republicans) rate the federal government response to the pandemic as fair or poor. The survey also indicates that the pandemic is increasingly taking an emotional toll, with a majority of U.S. adults (53%) saying that worry and stress related to coronavirus has had a negative impact on their mental health, up from 39% in May.
  • With Congress set to consider its next coronavirus relief package, a clear majority of the public across political party affiliation says that top priority should be given to increasing federal funding for efforts to limit the spread of the virus such as testing, contact tracing, and personal protective equipment for essential workers. Most Democrats, and about half of independents and Republicans, also say Congress should prioritize increasing federal support for state and local governments to help schools reopen safely. Large shares of the public also see various measures to bolster individuals’ financial health and increase access to health insurance amid the economic downturn as important things for Congress to tackle, though partisans divide on the priority that should be placed on these measures.
  • With the new school year quickly approaching, the issue of whether and how to reopen schools looms large for both parents and policymakers. On balance, most parents with kids in school (60%) say it is better to open schools later to minimize infection risk, even if students miss out on academics and social services and some parents will not be able to work, while about half as many (34%) say it’s better to open schools sooner so parents can work and kids can get services, even if there’s some risk of infection. A majority (71%) of the public overall say that public schools in their area need more resources to reopen safely, and 66% of parents say the same about their own child’s school. Parents of color are more likely than White parents to say it is better for schools to open later to minimize infection risk, and to say that their own child’s school lacks the resources it needs to reopen safely.1
  • Parents – particularly parents of color and those with lower incomes – have a variety of worries related to both a school reopening scenario, and one in which schools remain closed. When it comes to reopening, majorities are worried that their child, family members, or teachers may get sick from the virus, and most also worry about schools’ and students’ ability to comply with physical distancing and other public health guidance. If schools don’t reopen, about two-thirds of parents are worried about their children falling behind socially and emotionally (67%) and academically (65%), and about half worry about losing income if they can’t go to work (51%) or not being able to pay enough attention to their kids if they’re working at home (47%). The inability to access other services schools provide is a concern for some parents: 40% worry about their child not getting needed social services if schools remain closed, 31% worry they won’t have access to technology needed for online learning, and 24% worry about their children having enough food to eat at home. Many of these worries – both about the risks of school reopening and the loss of learning and social services – are much higher among parents of color and those with lower incomes than they are among White and higher-income parents.
  • The latest KFF Health Tracking Poll also finds that more than four months in, the coronavirus pandemic continues to take an economic toll on Americans. Four in ten report trouble affording basic necessities or falling behind on household or medical bills in the past 3 months, including 22% who say they experienced this directly because of coronavirus and its impact on their financial situation, and 17% who say they were experiencing these problems before coronavirus.

View On The State Of The Pandemic And Government Response

With a mounting death toll and coronavirus cases surging throughout much of the U.S., a majority of the public (60%) think that the worst is yet to come, up from 50% in May, though not as high as the 74% of adults in early April who thought things were likely to get worse. One in five adults (20%) currently think that the worst of the coronavirus outbreak is behind us. The overall numbers mask a deep partisan divide, with a slight majority of Republicans saying either “the worst is behind us” (31%) or that they don’t think the coronavirus is or will be a major problem (23%), while about eight in ten Democrats (79%) and a majority of independents (57%) say “the worst is yet to come.”

Figure 1: Increasing Share Say Worst Of Coronavirus Is Yet To Come

Amid what many see as a botched federal response to the virus, about half of U.S. adults (48%) rate the federal government response to the pandemic as “poor” while another 23% call it “fair.” Just 28% rate the federal response as “good” or “excellent.” Even among Republicans, who are generally supportive of President Trump and his Administration, 42% rate the federal government response to the pandemic as “fair” or “poor.” The public is more divided when it comes to assessing state and local governments, with about half of adults giving their state (46%) and local (48%) governments positive marks.

Figure 2: About Seven In Ten Give The Federal Government Fair Or Poor Marks In Coronavirus Outbreak Response

Table 1: Views of federal, state, and local response to coronavirus by party identification
How would you rate…to the current coronavirus outbreak? Party identification
Democrats Independents Republicans
…the federal government’s response…
Excellent/good 8% 26% 57%
Fair/poor 91 73 42
…your state government’s response…
Excellent/good 55 42 44
Fair/poor 44 57 56
…your local government’s response…
Excellent/good 57 45 50
Fair/poor 42 54 47

Majorities Across Parties Say Congress Should Prioritize Funding For Testing And Contact Tracing

As Congress discusses its next coronavirus relief package, there are reports that the Trump Administration is resisting allocating additional federal funds for coronavirus testing, contact tracing, and other prevention measures. This is at clear odds with the public’s priorities; when asked about a number of potential actions Congress could take, the highest-ranked priority among the public is increasing federal funding for efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus, such as testing, contact tracing, and personal protective equipment for essential workers. Seven in ten adults overall (72%) say this should be a top priority for Congress, including majorities of Democrats, independents, and Republicans. Schools are another popular priority: a majority (55%) say increasing federal funding to state and local governments to help schools reopen safely should be a top priority, including about two-thirds of Democrats (68%) and about half of independents (53%) and Republicans (48%).

Figure 3: Increasing Federal Funding For Coronavirus Testing, Contact Tracing, And PPE Seen As Top Priority For Congress

Other measures to provide economic relief or extend insurance benefits are seen as important by large shares of the public overall, but have less broad appeal across partisans. For example, about half the public overall say increasing government financial assistance to help Americans who do not get health insurance from their jobs pay for coverage (52%) and providing financial assistance for people who have lost their jobs to purchase COBRA insurance through their former employers (49%) should be top priorities. However, there are large partisan gaps, with Democrats 42 percentage points more likely than Republicans to say Congress should place a top priority on increasing government financial assistance for individual health insurance, and 26 percentage points more likely to say Congress should place a top priority on providing assistance for people to purchase COBRA coverage.

About four in ten overall say other actions should be top priorities for Congress, including increasing funding to states to help pay for Medicaid (44%), sending a second round of stimulus checks to individuals (43%), guaranteeing every American a basic income until the pandemic passes (42%), creating a public option health insurance plan (41%), and extending the additional unemployment benefits set to expire at the end of July (39%). Views on each of these measures are marked by large partisan differences, with about six in ten Democrats saying each should be a top priority, compared with about a quarter of Republicans.

Table 2: Views of potential Congressional actions on coronavirus by party identification
Percent saying each of the following should be a “top priority” for Congress: Party identification
Democrats Independents Republicans
Increasing federal funding for efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus 90% 65% 57%
Increasing federal funding to state and local governments to help schools safely open 68 53 48
Increasing government financial assistance to help more Americans who don’t get health insurance through their jobs purchase coverage 73 49 31
Providing government financial assistance for people who have lost their jobs to purchase COBRA health insurance 63 47 37
Increasing federal funding to state governments to help pay for their Medicaid programs 63 43 25
Sending a second round of stimulus checks directly to individuals 58 40 27
Guaranteeing every American a basic minimum income until the pandemic passes 56 42 27
Creating a public option health plan 57 39 26
Extending the increased unemployment benefits of $600 per week which are set to expire on July 31st 59 36 25

Views On The Pace Of Reopening, Including Schools

With coronavirus cases surging in many states that took an early approach to reopening, a plurality (45%) of adults overall say their state is moving at about the right pace in easing social distancing restrictions and opening businesses, while three in ten (31%) say their state is moving “too quickly” and about one in five (22%) say their state is opening “too slowly.” Views on reopening vary by both partisanship and location. Democrats are about three times as likely as Republicans to feel their state is moving too quickly, while Republicans are about three times as likely as Democrats to feel their state is moving too slowly. Notably, about four in ten adults (39%) in states that are current coronavirus hotspots (based on case data as of July 18) say their state is moving too quickly to reopen, compared to about one in four (24%) in non-hotspot states.2

Figure 4: Nearly Half Of Adults Say Their State Is Moving At About The Right Pace In Easing Social Distancing Restrictions

Public And Parents Prefer To Delay School Openings To Mitigate Risk

With the new school year quickly approaching, the issue of whether and how to reopen schools for in-person instruction has been at the forefront of discussions for both parents and policymakers. President Trump has stated that he wants schools to reopen for in-person instruction in the fall, and has even suggested that the federal government may withhold money from schools that don’t reopen. When asked to weigh the risks vs. benefits, a majority of the public (63%) thinks it is better to open schools later to ensure the risk of getting coronavirus is as low as possible, even if it means some students will fall behind academically or miss out on services and some parents will be unable to return to work. About a third (32%) think it is better to open schools sooner so that parents can work and students won’t miss out on learning and other services, even if there is some risk to teachers, students and staff. There is a large partisan gap on this issue among the public overall, with 87% of Democrats and 59% of independents preferring schools open later while six in ten Republicans (60%) prefer that schools open sooner.

Among parents with a child age 5-17 that normally attends school, six in ten (60%) think it is better to reopen schools later in order to ensure the risk of coronavirus is as low as possible, while about half as many (34%) think it is better to reopen sooner. Parents of color (76%) are even more likely to prefer a later reopening compared to their White counterparts (51%).

Figure 5: Public Overall, And Parents, Prefer For Schools To Open Later To Minimize Coronavirus Risk

The public’s caution towards reopening schools may be reinforced by a sense that schools do not have the necessary resources to safely reopen in a manner that complies with public health recommendations on how to minimize the risk of spreading coronavirus. Seven in ten adults overall say that public schools in their area need more resources in order to safely reopen, while just 22% say schools have enough resources. This sentiment is echoed by parents of school-aged children when they are asked about their own child’s school. Two-thirds of parents (66%) say their child’s school needs more resources in order to safely reopen. Notably, parents of color are more likely than their White counterparts to say their child’s school lacks the resources necessary to safely reopen (82% vs. 54%).

Figure 6: Seven In Ten, Including Majorities Of Parents, Say Public Schools Need More Resources To Reopen Safely

Parents – Particularly parents of color and those with Lower Incomes – Worry about both school reopening And remaining closed

With many schools’ academic year commencing in August and early September, about half of parents with children who typically attend school (52%) said their child’s school had not yet announced whether they would be having in-person classes this fall at the time they took the survey. This month’s poll asked parents about worries related to both a school reopening scenario and one in which schools remain closed to in-person instruction. When it comes to reopening, large shares of parents with a child enrolled in school are worried about teachers and staff getting sick from coronavirus (79% very or somewhat worried) and children being unable or unwilling to comply with physical distancing practices (73% very or somewhat worried). About seven in ten are also worried about their child (70%) or themselves or a family member (69%) getting sick from coronavirus, while two-thirds (66%) worry about their child’s school being unable to comply with public health recommendations.

Figure 7: Large Shares Of Parents Worry About Teachers, Children, Family Members Getting Sick If Schools Reopen

Reflecting the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on those with lower incomes and on communities of color, there are some notable differences in worry levels between parents of color and White parents, and between those with lower and those with higher household incomes. Nine in ten parents of color (91%) say they are either “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about their child getting sick with coronavirus if they return to school in the fall, compared to 55% of White parents who say the same. Similarly, about nine in ten of parents of color say they are worried about teachers and other staff getting sick with coronavirus (92%), children being unable or unwilling to physically distance (91%), and that they or a family member will get sick with coronavirus (90%). Far fewer White parents say they are worried about each of these concerns.

In addition, parents who have a household income under $90,000 are more likely than their higher-income counterparts to say they are worried about children being unable or unwilling to physically distance (82% vs. 62%) or teachers and staff getting sick from the coronavirus (84% vs. 73%).

Table 3: Worries about school reopening among parents by race/ethnicity and household income
Percent who say they are “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about each of the following if their child DOES return to school in-person: All parents with a child who normally attends school Race/ethnicity Household Income
Parents of color White Parents Parents with HH income under $90,000 Parents with HH income $90,000+
Teachers and other staff at school getting sick from coronavirus 79% 92% 69% 84% 73%
Children at the school being unable or unwilling to comply with physical distancing practices 73 91 60 82 62
Their child getting sick with coronavirus 70 91 55 75 65
They or someone else in their family getting sick from coronavirus 69 90 53 72 66
Their child’s school being unable to comply with public health recommendations 66 88 49 68 66

Parents also express a number of worries related to schools remaining closed for in-person instruction in the fall. If schools don’t reopen, about two-thirds of parents say they would worry about their children falling behind socially and emotionally (67%) and academically (65%), and about half say they would worry about losing income if they can’t go to work (51%) or not being able to pay enough attention to their kids if they’re working at home (47%). Other services schools provide are also a concern for some parents: 40% worry about their child not getting needed social services if schools remain closed, 31% worry they won’t have access to technology needed for online learning, and 24% worry about their children having enough food to eat at home.

Figure 8: About Two In Three Parents Worry About Their Child Falling Behind Socially, Academically If They Do Not Return To In-Person Classes

Similar to the findings on parental worries about their child returning to school in-person in the fall, parents of color and those with lower household incomes are also more likely than their counterparts to say they worry about possible outcomes if their children do not return to in-person classes.

Parents of color are more likely than White parents to say they are “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about their child not getting social services they usually get at school (52% vs. 32%), are almost three times as likely to worry their child won’t have access to the technology needed for online learning (49% vs. 17%), and about five times as likely to worry their child will not have enough to eat at home (44% vs. 9%). Parents of color are also more likely than White parents to worry about losing income if they are unable to work outside the home (65% vs. 41%).

Similarly, parents with household incomes under $90,000 more likely than their higher income counterparts to be worried that their child will not have access to social services they usually get at school (47% vs. 26%), will not have enough to eat at home (34% vs. 6%), or won’t have access to the technology needed for online learning (43% vs. 10%). Moreover, lower-income parents are more likely than those with higher incomes to worry about losing income if they are unable to work outside the home (61% vs. 35%).

Table 4: Worries about schools remaining closed among parents by race/ethnicity and household income
Percent saying they are “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about each of the following if their child DOES NOT return to school in-person: All parents with a child who normally attends school Race/ethnicity Household Income
Parents of color White
Parents
Parents with HH income under $90,000 Parents with HH income $90,000+
Their child falling behind on their emotional and social development 67% 76% 62% 68% 65%
Their child falling behind academically 65 73 60 66 63
Losing income if they are unable to work outside the home 51 65 41 61 35
Not being able to pay enough attention to their child if they are working from home 47 56 41 49 48
Their child not getting needed social services they usually get at school 40 52 32 47 26
Their child not having enough to eat at home 24 44 9 34 6
Their child not having access to the technology needed for online learning 31 49 17 43 10

The Continuing Impact Of The Coronavirus Pandemic On Mental Health, Wellbeing, And Financial Health

over half report a negative impact on mental health

As life with the coronavirus pandemic wears on, Americans increasingly say it is taking a negative toll on their mental health. For the first time since KFF began tracking this question in March, a majority of adults (53%) now say that stress and worry related to the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health. This is up 14 percentage points since May, and up 8 percentage points since the previous high of 45% in early April. About one in four (26%) say worry and stress related to coronavirus has had a “major impact” on their mental health, while a similar share (28%) say it has had a “minor impact.”

Figure 9: Adults Increasingly Report That Worry And Stress Related To Coronavirus Has Had A Negative Impact On Their Mental Health

Notably, younger adults are more likely older adults, and women are more likely than men, to say stress and worry related to coronavirus has had a negative impact on their mental health. About seven in ten Blacks adults (68%) and those who have had difficulty paying household bills in the past three months due to the financial impact of the coronavirus outbreak (71%) say that stress and worry related to the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health.

Figure 10: Women, Younger Adults, Black Adults, And Those Who Have Had Financial Impact More Likely To Report Mental Health Impact

In addition to reporting a general negative impact on their mental health, about half (52%) of adults report that worry and stress related to the coronavirus outbreak has had adverse effects on their mental health and wellbeing in specific ways. About a third say coronavirus-related worry or stress has led to problems with their sleep (36%) or has led to a poor appetite or overeating (32%). About one in five say worry or stress related to the pandemic has caused them to experience frequent headaches or stomachaches (18%) or difficulty controlling their temper (18%), while 12% each say it has led to increased alcohol or drug use or worsening chronic health conditions.

Figure 11: Just Over Half Have Experienced Adverse Effects Due To Worry And Stress Related To The Coronavirus Outbreak

Mirroring the findings on overall negative impact on mental health, younger adults and women are more likely than their counterparts to say coronavirus-related stress has caused adverse effects on their mental health or wellbeing. Notably, three in four adults who have had difficulty paying household bills in the past three months due to the financial impact of coronavirus say they have also experienced adverse effects their mental health and wellbeing, as do about six in ten Hispanic adults and Black adults.

Figure 12: Certain Groups, Including Hispanic And Black Adults And Those Financially Impacted, More Likely To Report Adverse Health Effects

four in ten have problems affording household expenses or health care

With the country facing a double-digit unemployment rate, four in ten adults say they or an adult in their household has had problems paying bills or difficulty affording medical care or basic expenses in the past three months. This includes about one in five who say they have fallen behind on their credit card bills (22%), 18% who have had trouble affording health insurance, and similar shares who say they have had trouble paying medical bills (17%), paying for food (17%), paying utility bills (17%) or have fallen behind on their rent or mortgage (17%). Additionally, 12% say they have had problems affording their prescription medications. Notably, among the 40% of adults who have experienced difficulty paying household or medical bills in the last three months, most (54%, or 22% of all adults) say it was due to the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on their financial situation, while 42% (17% of all adults) say this something they were already experiencing before the pandemic.

Figure 13: Four In Ten Households Report Difficulty Paying For Necessities In The Last 3 Months, Most Say Due To Coronavirus

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