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On mask and vaccine mandates, Colorado voters split along party lines: poll

A teacher leads her students in a classroom discussion during a STEM class.
Aurora Public Schools is one of several districts that have tightened mask requirements since the start of the school year. It is now requiring masks for all students under 12 and staff who work with them.
Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat

Colorado parents are deeply divided on mask and vaccine requirements in schools, with Democrats far more likely to support mandates and Republicans largely opposed.

Parents as a whole were almost evenly split, with 50% saying masks should not be required and 48% saying they should, within the survey’s margin of error.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has not issued a statewide school mask mandate, instead leaving decisions to school districts and local boards of health, and there has been passionate debate at public meetings on masking and other COVID protocols.

The findings come from a new poll Magellan Strategies conducted Aug. 9 to 16, as students in many Colorado districts headed back to school. Magellan, a Republican-leaning firm based in Louisville, Colorado, asked 516 parents of children in kindergarten through 12th grade how their child’s school handled education during the pandemic, whether they thought public schools in their area were generally on the right or wrong track, and what they thought about mask and vaccine requirements.

“It’s not very often you see that stark a split,” said Ryan Winger, director of data analysis and campaign strategy for Magellan Strategies. “That explains a lot of the heightened interest and passion out there. It’s a situation where the districts, no matter what they do, they can’t make everyone happy. It speaks to how difficult it’s been for districts to navigate at the local level.”

The poll also included questions about school funding and how race is taught in schools.

Magellan used voter registration records to contact parents, so those who are not registered voters are not represented among the respondents. The poll has a 4.3% margin of error with a 95% confidence interval.

Among Democrats, 83% believe students should wear masks in school, while just 17% of Republicans agree. Among the unaffiliated voters who make up a growing share of Colorado’s electorate, 43% support mask requirements. Support for masks was higher in Denver and surrounding suburbs and lower in small towns and rural parts of the state.

On vaccine requirements, 52% of respondents said teachers and staff should be required to be vaccinated, while 45% opposed vaccine mandates. Meanwhile, 47% said high school students should be required to get the COVID vaccine to attend school.

Again, Democrats were far more likely to support vaccine mandates — with more than 80% saying staff should get vaccinated, compared with less than a third for Republicans. So far, Colorado school districts have been slow to adopt vaccine mandates, though the announcement Monday that the FDA had granted full approval to the Pfizer vaccine could lead some to reconsider.

Asked what health and safety measures are most important to feel safe sending their children to school, 70% described quarantining after exposure is very or somewhat necessary. About half of respondents pointed to mask mandates, getting their own children vaccinated, and maintaining social distancing as very or somewhat necessary to feel safe.

Overall, 42% of respondents said the schools in their area are on the right track, and 39% said they were on the wrong track, with Democrats and women more likely than Republicans or men to give a positive response.

But what does right or wrong track mean? That varied considerably among respondents.

“They are taking the health risks of COVID-19 seriously,” said one father of a public high school student, describing what local schools were doing right. “I appreciate the mask mandates because it shows that the schools are prioritizing in-person education but still mitigating health risks.”

“Full-time in school. No masks required. No vaccine mandates. No quarantines unless there’s an outbreak,” said the mother of a middle school student enrolled in a charter school in response to the same question.

Those who said schools are on the right track also thought educators had done the best they could in trying circumstances and appreciated having access to in-person learning. Those who thought schools were on the wrong track cited remote learning, lack of funding, and political agendas in the classroom.

More than half of respondents — 53% — approved of how their own school district addressed COVID concerns this past school year, while 40% disapproved. Again, Democrats and women were more likely to respond positively, as were parents of high school students.

Schools got the highest marks on providing appropriate technology, using health and safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID, and communicating plans to parents. They got the lowest marks on providing personalized learning to meet student needs and supporting children’s mental health and emotional wellbeing.

Despite approving of how their district handled COVID response, many parents said they’re worried their children will need extra instruction and attention this year. More than half say they are particularly concerned with students’ math and writing skills.

Fifty-six percent of respondents said schools should offer both in-person and virtual options this year, while 37% said schools should offer only in-person learning. Nearly 80% said they intended to enroll their own children in in-person school. A Chalkbeat survey of Colorado school districts found that just 1-2% of students were enrolled in a virtual option, though some parents may have opted for homeschooling or enrolled in a virtual charter school outside their district.

While 59% of respondents trusted teachers to make good decisions for children’s education, parents showed much less confidence in superintendents, school boards, teachers unions, and the state and federal government.

On school funding, 63% of respondents said Colorado schools need more money, including 55% of Republicans, and 58% said they would vote to support a “modest” tax increase to fund their local district. Colorado voters have consistently rejected statewide tax increases for education but often are more favorable to local requests.

Magellan Strategies also asked respondents what they think about critical race theory, which looks at how laws and institutions perpetuate systemic racism, though the term has become a polarizing catch-all among those who seek to ban certain teachings about racism in America. Among respondents, 71% said they were at least somewhat familiar with the concept, though they provided widely different definitions. Some said it was a way of looking at history through multiple lenses and understanding how race shaped existing social structures, while others said it taught hate against white people or represented left-wing propaganda.

Just 37% of respondents said critical race theory, which was developed by legal scholars who teach graduate students, should be taught in K-12 schools. However, 71% of Democrats surveyed said they would support teaching critical race theory, compared to 29% of unaffiliated voters and just 9% of Republicans.

Winger noted that unaffiliated voters, who have diverse political views, polled closer to the Republican position than to the Democratic one on many issues related to COVID and education. Democrats have dominated Colorado politics in recent years by appealing to both party loyalists and unaffiliated voters, but parents who are frustrated by their district’s COVID response could play a role in school board elections this fall, particularly in suburban districts.

“There are a lot of parents who have been activated by this issue, on one side or the other,” he said. “Certainly how schools are navigating these choices is going to play a part in the November election, especially if schools start having to quarantine more and things look more like they did last year.

“Whether that translates into getting these candidates elected, that remains to be seen.”

See the full results and more information about methodology here.

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