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ELON POLL: N.C. residents grade Trump, Cooper on handling of pandemic, express concern about COVID-19 spread with return to school

A new survey of N.C. residents by the Elon University Poll has found that 60 percent are “extremely worried” or “very worried” about the spread of COVID-19 among students, teachers and caregivers with the anticipated return to the classroom for students across the state. A third of residents say students should return to the classroom only after a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 has been developed, with about three out of four saying that the decision by most schools to rely on remote learning this year was a good one.

Opinions across the state about President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic have become more polarized since this summer, with 43 percent giving the president an “F” for his response and 35 percent giving him an “A” or a “B.” Opinions about how N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper has responded to the pandemic are more varied, with “B” and “C” the most popular grades.

The Elon Poll found that opinions have shifted about the level of pandemic restrictions on N.C. residents. In Elon’s June survey, 46 percent said the state’s rules related to the pandemic were not restrictive enough, compared to 34 percent now. Similarly, 21 percent said in June that North Carolina was being too restrictive, compared to 28 percent now. However, 37 percent now say the restrictions are “about right” compared to 33 percent in June.

“The major debate in the election for Governor of North Carolina has been about the speed of reopening after COVID-19 shutdowns,” said Jason Husser, director of the Elon University Poll and associate professor of political science. “While we found Governor Cooper’s rating on handling the pandemic has slipped since our June poll, we also found most North Carolina residents did not find the state’s policies too restrictive. Similarly, only about 1 in 4 residents thought the economy has reopened too slowly or wanted a swift return to in-person schools. Taken together our results suggest that campaigns based on rapid reopening of the state will have great difficulty winning a majority on that issue alone.”

The impact of the pandemic has continued to spread, both personally and economically, the Elon Poll has found. Half of the state’s residents now say they personally know someone who has contracted COVID-19, up from 31 percent in June. Nineteen percent say they have lost a job or been laid off due to the pandemic, and 56 percent say the pandemic has caused them to worry about their finances. Fifteen percent of parents or caregivers of students say they have quit their job to assist with remote learning.

The survey of 1,382 N.C. residents was conducted Oct. 9-11 using an online opt-in sample marketplace. The survey has a credibility interval of +/- 2.9 percent. The credibility interval is an accuracy measure for opt-in online surveys. A fuller explanation of the credibility interval and the survey methodology are available in the full report.

The survey was conducted by the Elon Poll in partnership with The Raleigh News & Observer, Charlotte Observer and The Durham Herald Sun.

Back to School

This month, some North Carolina schoolchildren who have been learning remotely began returning to the classroom, with many high school and middle school students expected to return to campus after the first of the year. The decision by most schools to have children learn from home to start the year has broad support, with 71 percent of Republicans saying it was a good idea and 89 percent of Democrats holding that view. Black residents were more likely to say it was a good decision than white residents, and men and women were evenly split on the issue.

Support for the decision to allow K-5 students to return to the classroom is less robust, with 48 percent saying it was a good decision compared to 41 percent who think it is a bad decision, and 11 percent not having any opinion.

Opinions about exactly when students should go back to school are divided. “Only when there is a vaccine and/or treatment for COVID” was the most popular response, with 34 percent expressing that view. Twenty-two percent say “as soon as possible” and another 12 percent say “in the next couple of months.” Eight percent say students should return before the end of the current school year while 14 percent believe that students should not return to school until the start of the next school year in 2021.

Republicans were four times as likely to say students should return to school “as soon as possible” than Democrats, men were much more likely to have this view than women, and white residents were three times more likely than Black residents to say students should return as soon as possible.

Democrats are far more supportive of waiting for a vaccine or treatment for a return to the classroom than Republicans, and Black residents were more supportive than white residents of this approach.

Concerns remain high that a return to the classroom will cause COVID-19 to spread among students and teachers, as well as parents and other caregivers. Sixty percent of those surveyed were “extremely worried” or “very worried” about the virus spreading when in-person learning resumes. Only 6 percent were “not at all worried,” while 33 percent were “somewhat” or “a little” worried.

“These results suggest that there are no politically easy choices for decision-makers at the state and local level,” said Kaye Usry, assistant director of the Elon Poll and assistant professor of political science and policy studies. “However, North Carolina residents appear to be understanding about the need for K-12 schools to go remote.”

The Elon Poll also asked parents and caregivers specific questions about the learning experience of children. About 65 percent say their students have been learning mostly online, while 19 percent report in-person classes and 16 percent say their students have had a combination of in-person and remote learning. Opinions about the quality of those experiences were split, with 33 percent saying their students have had a better experience than in past years and 40 percent saying the experience has been worse.

Overall, 45 percent of parents and other caregivers of students say that remote instruction has had a positive effect on their students, 36 percent say it has had a negative effect, and 19 percent say it has had no effect. Similarly, 29 percent say their student is learning more this school year compared to 39 percent who say their student is learning less and 33 percent who say their student is learning about the same amount.

Continuing impact of the pandemic

To see how some opinions have shifted as the COVID-19 pandemic has continued, the Elon Poll repeated several questions asked during a June survey of residents, including several related to the economy.

N.C. residents have not shifted significantly in their view of the national economy, with 7 percent giving it an “A” in this most recent survey compared to 5 percent in June, and 16 percent giving it an “F” now compared to 13 percent in June. There have been slight shifts in what residents report about their own personal financial situation. Twelve percent say their situation is better now, compared to 10 percent in June. Thirty-two percent say it has gotten worse, compared to 36 percent in June. Roughly the same percentage say their situation has remained the same.

What do N.C. residents think about how state rules and restrictions related to the pandemic as it has worn on? They appear to be leaning more toward saying they are either “about right” or “too restrictive” than they were four months ago.

In June, nearly half — 46 percent — said they were “not restrictive enough,” but that has now fallen to 34 percent. The portion of residents who responded “too restrictive” has risen from 21 percent to 28 percent, while the portion who say they are “about right” has risen from 33 percent to 38 percent.

Responses varied greatly based on a number of demographic factors, with Republicans, men and white residents much more likely to say the state has been “too restrictive.” Older residents were also more likely to say the state had been “too restrictive,” as were those residents who had not suffered negative economic impacts from the pandemic such as losing a job.

The poll also asked for opinions on the speed of the reopening of North Carolina following the initial response to the pandemic that left many businesses shuttered and residents sheltering at home. The responses varied, with 39 percent saying that the speed of the phased reopening was “about right” while 33 percent say it was “too fast” and 28 percent say it was “too slow.” Democrats were more likely to say it was “about right” or “too fast,” while a majority of Republicans say the reopening was “too slow.”

The survey also assessed the level of comfort residents now have with going out to a variety of places. The poll found that residents were most likely to feel “extremely uncomfortable” going out to bars, movie theaters and indoor sporting events. They were the most comfortable going out to outdoor restaurants and outdoor sporting events as well as hair salons or barbers and indoor church services.

Work is underway now to develop a coronavirus vaccine, a milestone that is viewed as critical from public health, economic and educational standpoints. Additionally, as we head into the fall and winter, there are concerns about how well the nation’s health care system can respond to the arrival of flu season while also combatting COVID-19.

There has been some progress in the development of a vaccine, but the Elon Poll has found that many in North Carolina have reservations about using the vaccine once approved. A third say they would use a COVID-19 vaccine approved by the FDA and another third say “it depends,” while 25 percent say they would not take the vaccine and 9 percent say they are not sure.

“Many public health experts view a future vaccine as the best way for society to emerge out of the pandemic,” Husser said. “However, most North Carolina residents are skeptical or plan to avoid the vaccine. Though political leanings clearly make a difference with Republicans being more likely than Democrats to plan to take the vaccine, a person’s history with the flu shot seems far more important than politics. Those who never take the flu shot are about six times more likely to say they won’t take an FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine than those who take the flu shot every year.

Again, the Elon Poll found variations related to demographics. Republicans were more likely to say they would take the vaccine (43 percent) while Democrats were most likely to say “it depends” (37 percent). Men, white residents, older residents and those who get a flu shot every year or almost every year were much more likely to say they would take an approved vaccine.

Shifting to the flu shot, the Elon Poll found that 43 percent of N.C. residents say they get a flu shot every year and another 12 percent say they get it “almost every year.” However, with the pandemic now underway, 37 percent say they are more likely to get a flu shot this year while 44 percent say it makes no difference and 12 percent say they are less likely.

The survey included four questions related to mental health, with the goal of seeing whether some groups of respondents are doing better or worse in terms of their emotional well-being.

Based on responses to questions about feeling anxious, depressed, lonely or hopeful, 52 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 48 percent of those who have personally experienced the economic impact of the pandemic were classified as having poor mental health. Also in that group were 42 percent of caregivers for children in K-12 schools.

Those with the best mental health included 42 percent of those age 65 or older, and 47 percent of those who have experienced no economic impact from the pandemic.

“These findings demonstrate how the ongoing pandemic, and likely the broader climate of political instability, are negatively impacting these groups in particular,” Usry said.

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