Almost as soon as some schools reopened for in-person learning in fall 2020, research suggested a tidy, if bleak, conclusion to why they did it: politics. Early analyzes indicated that Covid-19 health factors had virtually nothing to do with reopening decisions, and partisan politics could explain nearly all of the variation.
There were early signs that this account didn’t tell the whole story. If allegiance to former President Donald Trump (in schools that opened) or to teachers’ unions (in those that remained closed) was all that mattered, why support for reopening schools? also falling among Republican voters during the summer? And what about the conflicting recommendations from the Federal Departments of Health and Education at the time? Nevertheless, the idea that Covid-19 was not a real factor was repeated by some of the countries most influential journalists and the media, and presented as if the question was generally settled.
This is typical of policy research: the first waves of data attract a lot of attentionand can ossify rapidly in conventional wisdom. When subsequent, often deeper, investigation reveals alternative or more nuanced explanations, it tends to receive far less attention.
This is what is happening with research on school closures. More recent studies have shown that, far from irrelevant, Covid-19 indicators are among the central factors predicting whether schools reopen.
The researchers say they still haven’t fully understood how other factors – like school governance and parental preferences – influenced Covid-19 school decisions. A new study, recently published by two education researchers at George Mason University, replicates some previous findings and explores potential new variables. Overall, this continues to add to a more complex picture than early scans suggested.
This debate may seem pointless: schools have resumed in-person learning this school year, and parents largely report Satisfaction with their child’s progress. But the consequences of these decisions persist. Many educators say things have not back to normal yet. Empirical research suggests that some of the most negative academic effects were lived disproportionately by low-income students and students of color. Additionally, future pandemics remain a threat, and district leaders may one day again be accused of navigating similar circumstances.
New study confirms school opening decisions were complicated
The narrative that school reopening decisions were all about politics came to fruition early. One of the first evidence came from a Brookings institution blog post published in July 2020, where lead researcher Jon Valant found “no relationship” between school districts’ reopening plans and their per capita Covid-19 cases, but a strong one between districts’ plans and level-level support of the county to Trump in the 2016 election. The implication was that communities that take a cue from then-President Trump were more willing to return to in-person teaching.
Additional research emerged in the following months reiterating that health issues were not a significant factor. “We find evidence that politics, much more than science, has shaped school district decision-making,” concluded political scientists Michael Hartney and Leslie Finger. in an October 2020 analysis.
But over time, and more schools have reopened, the situation has become more complicated. A July 2021 Analysis compared fall 2020 reopening factors to spring 2021 reopening factors. Tulane economists Douglas Harris and Daniel Oliver found Covid-19 rates to be an important predictor of school reopenings in the fall. Over time, the role of political and health factors diminished, Harris and Oliver observed, while the demographics of a given community remained an important predictor throughout the year. (This was tricky, they note, given “the close interplay between demographics, parents’ work situations, and COVID-related health risks.”)
The latest addition to the research literature was published this month by two George Mason professors, Matthew Steinberg and David Houston. Their work document – which has not yet been peer-reviewed – confirmed some of the main findings of previous studies: higher rates of in-person teaching in fall 2020 occurred in areas with weaker unions and that leaned Republican, and Covid-19 rates were correlated with reopening decisions.
The new article examines how factors predicting in-person schooling changed during the 2021-2021 school year. Covid-19 case and death rates, political partisanship and the strength of teachers’ unions have become “less powerful predictors” over time. Over the year, Steinberg and Houston also observed that communities with histories of higher standardized test scores were much more likely to reopen school buildings than their lower-performing counterparts.
“This model can help us understand the growing discrepancies in test results that have emerged as a result of the pandemic,” they write.
Sarah Reckhow, political scientist at Michigan State University who participated in a study who found local school district decisions were strongly tied to political partisanship and union strength, called Houston and Steinberg’s study “brilliant” — and noted the importance of replication in research on policies.
Although her own research found school reopening was less related to the severity of Covid-19, she said there was still a relationship with observed Covid-19 rates in some aspects of their model.
Harris told Vox he agreed with the conclusions of the new working paper — that reopening isn’t just about politics — which largely mirrored his previous research. He also praised the new study for tracking changes in factors that seemed to motivate in-person teaching over time. “It was new, interesting and important,” Harris said.
The Steinberg and Houston study relied on county-level data from a private company, Burbio, which has tracked the in-person and virtual learning of nearly half of all public school students during the pandemic. Covid-19 case and death rates, and partisanship measured by presidential vote share, are also all reported at the county level. Most counties, however, contain multiple school districts, which is why other researchers have preferred a school district level analysis.
“There are a lot of analytical choices that go into descriptive analyzes of flawed data, and we don’t have a solid bone to choose from with the other studies,” Steinberg told Vox, but pointed out that many of these minor choices may have “non-trivial implications” for interpreting the results.
Brad Mariano, an education policy researcher at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told Vox that he was skeptical of Burbio’s ability to accurately capture in-person instruction rates, and believed that level-level analysis of the school district (as the one he released earlier this year) would have been preferable to a county-level approach. Still, he praised the new paper, not least for carrying out its analysis over time. “We need multiple efforts on the question, especially efforts that use similar and different datasets and metrics, to really triangulate a data-driven answer,” he said.
Sarah Cohodes, economist at Columbia University who studied pandemic differences between charter schools and traditional public schools, said there was no right or wrong answer when it came to measuring by county or school district. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” she told me, though she reiterated that it depends on the research question.
Local support for teachers may have facilitated the reopening of schools
One of the most innovative elements of Steinberg and Houston’s study is their suggestion of a previously unexplored factor predicting in-person teaching: local teacher support. Using multiple surveys with different sampling strategies and question wording, George Mason faculty found that pre-pandemic support for increased educator pay was consistently associated with higher rates of in-person instruction during the pandemic. In other words, areas where the public was more supportive of increases for teachers were also more likely to have in-person learning.
Other education policy experts told Vox they would need more time to examine this link. Reckhow called it a “really intriguing finding,” but one that left her with “many questions” about the underlying mechanisms that might explain the finding. “Without more information, it’s difficult for me to develop a fully satisfactory explanation,” she said.
Steinberg pointed out that what he considers so “revealing” about this finding, which was based on data from two nationally representative surveys, is that it suggests to him that there was something something in communities that valued their teachers more that potentially made it easier. schools to open for in-person learning.
“Some of these small p-policies in communities are important, and whether or not there is pre-existing trust could make the logistical complexity of reopening manageable for leaders or unmanageable,” he said.
Over time, it can be easy to forget how acute the uncertainty was for school administrators during the 2020-21 school year, especially before vaccines became available. Everything seems clearer in hindsight. But given the huge implications for students, schools and families — and that administrators could one day find themselves in similar positions — researchers will likely be studying these decisions for years to come.