SALT LAKE CITY — The first quarter of the academic year is nearly over or just completed at most K-12 schools, so Utah families now know what it’s like for their children to return to school in the midst of a pandemic.

Growing numbers of Utahns perceive it is safe for children to be back in classrooms, according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.

More than half of 1,000 likely voters, or 53%, said it was safe for students to return to in-person learning, up from 51% in September.

But among parents of school-age students surveyed, two-thirds or 66% said it was safe, up from 61% in the September poll.

Lexi Cunningham, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association, said schools are the heart of their communities and educators are working hard to meet students’ academic, safety, social-emotional and nutritional needs under highly challenging circumstances.

“Families develop relationships with administrators and teachers and they trust that their children will be cared for at school. They know that schools and staffs are doing all that they can to ensure the safety of students. Because of high levels of trust, families do feel safe sending their children to school,” Cunningham said.

The latest poll, conducted by independent pollster Scott Rasmussen Oct. 12-17, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

The October poll indicates slightly more Utahns perceive it is “not safe” for students to be in classrooms — 29% — compared to 28% a month earlier. People who reported they were unsure dropped from 21% a month ago to 18% in the recent poll.

Neal Hendrickson, a former state legislator and current school bus driver, demonstrates how he sanitizes a school bus to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during a press conference about school bus safety outside of Granger High School in West Valley City on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Cunningham said it helps that the state and school districts have established dashboards to enable parents to track COVID-19 cases and numbers of students and employees under quarantine, she said.

“This information is readily available so parents know what is going on at their child’s school. If there are only a few cases at their child’s school, they might feel safe sending their child to school,” Cunningham said.

Royce Van Tassell, executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, said parents feel safe because school choice gives them an array of options that best meet the needs of their children and their families.

He points to recent state enrollment figures that indicate some migration from district schools to charter schools, online learning options, private schools and homeschooling.

“We trust parents to make wise decisions. We’re not going to force anybody to choose this or to choose that. Because parents have the responsibility for their kids’ education, they recognize the risks and say ‘This is what works for me and my kids and we’ll go find our place,’” he said.

Salt Lake City School District’s enrollment is down more than 1,500 students compared to fall 2019. The local board of education opted for an online instruction model to start the school year due to higher rates of positive cases in the community compared to other areas of the state.

Some of the change can be attributed to students enrolling in neighboring districts or private schools, but a goodly share of parents opted not to enroll their children in kindergarten this fall, which appears to be a national trend. District officials continue to study other factors behind the drop in enrollment.

“Every LEA (local educational agency) is going to approach this differently and that’s entirely appropriate. ... Everyone has to live with the consequences of the choices that they make. But certainly parents are saying, ‘We can find something that works well for us,’” Van Tassell said.

Results of the statewide poll reflect diverse perceptions of safety along political, ideological and religious lines.

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Three-fourths of people who identified as conservative said it was safe for students to return to school, while 63% of people who identified as liberal said it was not safe.

Among Republicans, 72% said it was safe for kids to return to school while 60% of Democrats said it was not safe.

Among respondents who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 64% said it was safe for Utah children to return to in-person learning. Among people of other faiths, 42% said it was safe, slightly down from a month ago.

Meanwhile, among people who selected “none” as their religious preference, 31% said it was safe, up from 24% a month ago.

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