December 25, 2020 8:00am

Student learning feared in jeopardy, poll shows

Power Poll members weigh in on student progress, the pandemic's impact on their budgets and the coronavirus vaccine

Photo of Chris Vass
Chattanooga, TN Correspondent
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Half of respondents to a Power Poll survey this week are “not confident” that Hamilton County students are making sufficient academic progress as Tennessee and the nation struggle to face down the devastating coronavirus pandemic.

The 10-month-old pandemic has profoundly affected families, pommeling the U.S. economy, its employers and workforce, health care system, and K-12 and higher education.

The Power Poll survey of influential local residents, conducted Monday through Thursday, asked respondents: “How confident are you that Hamilton County students are making sufficient academic progress?”

Half said they are not confident; another 14% said they are “confident” while just over a third — 35% — said they are unsure. One percent said they are “very confident.”

Hamilton County Schools students are finishing up this semester in a virtual-only learning format, given the county’s increasing cases of COVID-19. At this time, district officials said they plan to welcome students back to school in January and expect a little more than 7,200 student who had opted for online learning in the fall semester to return to school in person.

Gary Behler, Hamilton County Juvenile Court Clerk, said he fears “significant repercussions in student performance resulting from this pandemic and the attempts to manage the educational process.”

He has taught for 30 years as an adjunct professor at UTC, and this year is his “most challenging.”

“Students, whether attending in-person or virtually are much less engaged than previously,” Behler said. “Other educators that I have talked with are incredibly frustrated with our current delivery of educational services. While most young people are used to ‘screen time,’ the quality of education is suffering and the social/emotional components of development are certainly being impacted.”

The Power Poll survey was sent to 145 Chattanoogans, and 78 replied, for a response rate of 54%. The poll is a monthly survey of elected officials and leaders from business, civic and nonprofit organizations, media and education. While the survey is not a scientific poll, results offer insights into the opinions and beliefs of key decision-makers in the area.

This week’s survey results on education mirror those reported in a Vanderbilt University poll 1,007 registered Tennessee voters that was done between Nov. 18 and Dec. 8. Respondents in that poll reported they are somewhat or very concerned that the coronavirus pandemic has harmed student learning, with 87% to 88% worried it has diminished learning for students at the elementary, middle school students and high school levels.

With 2020 drawing to a close and area businesses and organizations evaluating their bottom lines in the wake of an upended economy, Power Poll members assessed their budget outlook for the year.

In answer to the question: “How does your organization’s financial picture look as 2020 draws to a close?,” 14% said “significantly worse than budgeted;” 30% said “slightly worse than budgeted;” 19% said “slightly better than budgeted;” and 3% said “significantly better than budgeted.”

While the economic impact of the coronavirus was mixed, there was vast support for the virus vaccines that are now making their way across the country.

When asked if they would take the vaccine in 2021 if offered it, 91% said “yes;” 9% said “no.”

UNUM executive Tom White said he would have no problem taking the vaccine.

Political consultant and former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp was a bit more careful.

“Healthy people weigh risks associated with COVID against risks associated with a vaccine in its early debut stage,” he noted.

In the Vanderbilt poll, 75% of respondents stated they are likely to get vaccinated.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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