The majority of North Carolina residents back using a go-slow approach to reopening public schools and businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new Elon University poll.
In the poll released Thursday, 77% of respondents said it was a good decision for most North Carolina public schools to offer only online classes instead of in-person classes at the start of the school year.
Only 28% of respondents said the timing of the state's phased reopening of businesses has been too slow. Also, 28% said the state's coronavirus rules and regulations have been too restrictive. The majority of respondents felt the state's response was just right or wasn't restrictive enough.
The new findings mirror results from a June Elon poll when 21% said the state's rules were too restrictive. People who want the state to reopen immediately haven't grown substantially since the summer, according to Jason Husser, director of the Elon University poll.
"Folks who are really unhappy with the speed of reopening of schools and businesses are quite unhappy with it," Husser said in an interview Tuesday with The News & Observer. "But they are a minority of voters."
The online poll of 1,382 North Carolina adults was conducted Oct. 9-11 and has a credibility interval of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points. The poll was done in partnership with The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun.
The poll results come as school leaders weigh how to reopen schools and political candidates argue about how to handle reopening of the state.
When should schools reopen
In the June Elon poll, people were split between reopening schools for in-person, staying with only online classes or offering a mix of both.
But the new poll found widespread support for beginning the new school year in August with only online classes. Those who thought it was a good decision included 71% of Republicans, 89% of Democrats and 70% from neither party.
"While controversial at the time, most have come to the conclusion it (opening online) was the right decision," Husser said. "But they're divided about how much longer remote instruction should take place."
More students are returning to in-person classes, especially after Cooper announced he'd allow elementary schools to reopen for full-time in-person classes. That option for elementary schools drew 48% in the poll who said it was a good decision. Of those polled, 41% said it was a bad decision and 11% had no opinion.
Cooper hasn't given that option yet for middle schools and high schools. According to the poll, 56% said school districts should have the option to offer full-time, in-person instruction for middle schools and high schools.
A total of 67% said school districts should have the option to offer part-time in-person instruction for middle and high school students. That's currently allowed by the state, although some districts are keeping those students in online only classes.
Poll respondents were split on when students should return — 48% said most schools shouldn't return to full-time in-person instruction for most students until there's a vaccine and/or treatment for COVID-19 or until the start of next school year. That compared to 42% who said students should return either as soon as possible, in the next few months or before the end of the school year.
Husser noted that only 22% in the poll said school should reopen as soon as possible.
The data also showed a partisan split. A total of 36% of Republicans said schools should return to full-time in-person instruction as soon as possible. But 48% of Democrats said that shouldn't happen until there's a COVID-19 vaccine or treatment.
If most schools do reopen for full-time in-person instruction, 61% said they'd be extremely worried or very worried about the spread of COVID-19 between students, teachers and caregivers.
Remote learning challenges for families
Many students haven't had in-person classes since schools were closed in March. The poll found parents haven't been happy with the experience.
A plurality of 40% said their child has had a worse experience this school year compared to past school years. In another question, a plurality of 39% said their children are learning less this school year than compared to past school years.
But when asked to evaluate the overall experience, a plurality of 45% said remote instruction has been positive for their children.
Remote learning has also posed hardships for parents. On a daily basis, 53% of parents said supervising their children during remote learning has disrupted their daily lives a fair deal to a great amount.
Helping their children with remote learning has caused 43% of parents to fall behind in their work, 33% to work fewer hours at their job, 18% to change their job and 15% to quit their job.
The poll could have electoral implications this fall for Cooper, a Democrat, and for Republican President Donald Trump.
Cooper ordered restrictions that have included shutting down businesses that state health officials have deemed at risk of spreading the virus and mandating masks be worn in public across the state and in K-12 public schools.
A plurality of 39% said the timing of the state's phased reopening has been about right. That compares to 33% who said it's been too fast and 28% who think it's been too slow.
A plurality of 38% said the state's coronavirus rules and restrictions have been about right. That compares to 34% who said they weren't restrictive enough and 28% who said they were too restrictive.
People who thought the state was too restrictive tended to give Cooper an F grade for his handling of the pandemic. But Husser said people who thought the state wasn't restrictive enough tended to give Cooper a B or C grade.
Cooper got an A, B or C grade from 71% of the respondents for his handling of the pandemic, down from 76% in the June poll. Trump got a D or F grade from 52% for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. That's up from 51% in the June poll.
"In terms of COVID, the governor is in about as good a position as he probably could have hoped to be," Husser said. "He doesn't have a tremendous number of people who say he's doing a great job. But at least he has a majority who are giving him a solid passing grade."
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, Cooper's Republican challenger, has campaigned on the governor being too slow to reopen the state. But Husser said the new Elon poll could help explain why Forest is behind Cooper in other polls.
The majority of Republicans joined Democrats and people from neither party in agreeing that the state's pace of reopening was either just right or too fast. But 49% of Republicans said the state's COVID-19 rules were too restrictive, compared to 10% of Democrats and 25% from neither party.
Public uncomfortable with indoor gatherings
As part of Cooper's phased reopening plan, bars, movie theaters and amusement parks were allowed to reopen this month under restrictions.
But the Elon poll found there's still strong reluctance about resuming some activities.
A total of 60% said they'd be extremely uncomfortable or somewhat uncomfortable with going to a bar. It was at 59% for going to a movie theater and 57% for an indoor sporting event.
But those who said it would be extremely or somewhat uncomfortable to attend dropped to 49% for indoor restaurants, 47% for indoor church services and 41% for outdoor sporting events.
A majority of 57% said they'd be extremely or somewhat comfortable going to an outdoor restaurant. A plurality of 44% said they'd be extremely or somewhat comfortable with going to a hair salon or barber.
"A lot of folks are still really uncomfortable with indoor public gatherings, which has huge impacts on the bar and restaurant sectors, as well as indoor concerts," Husser said.
Concerns about face masks, vaccine
The poll also has some findings for public health professionals hoping to get a handle on COVID-19, according to Husser.
When asked about wearing masks, 62% said it was very effective at reducing the chances of contracting COVID-19. But 29% said it was only somewhat effective and 9% said it's not effective at all.
The state's face mask requirement has been questioned by Forest, who said he'd lift it if he is elected governor.
"If masks are the best hope to keep it under control, then it would be better if that number is higher," Husser said.
The poll response was only slightly higher at 64% who said maintaining 6 feet of social distancing is very effective at reducing your chances of contracting COVID-19.
Work is underway to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, but only 33% said they'd definitely take it if it was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Another 33% said it depends and 25% said no.
"There's a long way to go in gaining public confidence of vaccines," Husser said.
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.