We got the school reopening story wrong
“It’s the politics, stupid” may be the aphorism for our times. In the age of Trump, the seductive narrative that uber-polarized identity politics can explain everything, including reopening plans for schools, appears obvious. After all, the president repeatedly proclaimed that schools must reopen, and for months, polls have shown pronounced partisan divides on whether students should return in-person or not. While we still don’t have a full accounting, early analyses indicate that schools in Trump country are more likely to be back in-person this fall, often despite high COVID rates.
Partisan politics is a familiar and intuitive, but ultimately inadequate explanation for school reopening patterns.
A close examination of emergency remote learning in spring 2020 reveals large differences between Red, Blue, and Purple states, with Red states often coming up short. Those gaps are due in part to challenges which still exist this fall. National political theater undoubtedly affects local reopening decisions, but it is a poor explanation for why more Red states’ schools are returning in-person — not only because it ignores the differences in remote learning Red states provided last spring, but also because it cannot explain them.
After spring closures, about a third of schools in Red states offered students synchronous learning platforms, like Zoom, compared to about half in Purple and Blue states. Assistance with devices and internet access were also much lower in Red states. Thus our common mental picture of remote schooling — students connecting to teachers through online video instruction — was less common in Red states, and their students undoubtedly suffered. Gaps extended beyond technology, because fewer schools in Red states expected one-on-one contact between students and teachers, posted explicit expectations for student participation, or took attendance after buildings were closed (which turned out to be a quarter of the school year).
There are plausible explanations for these differences. Broadband access — the vital infrastructure for online learning — was far lower in Red states. The digital divide is even more pronounced in rural areas, which are more common in Red states. Of course, many districts laid out substantial sums to bridge that divide, but building that bridge was not only more expensive and time consuming in Red states, the payoff would be lower because their school years end earlier. These are not just excuses: They are structural reasons why well-intentioned district leaders, not partisan ideologues, made rational decisions that lead to different outcomes.
Remote learning was rough everywhere last spring, but it was rougher in Red state districts. Against that backdrop, their tendency towards in-person reopening this fall looks more pragmatic than political. Summer polling showing that Republican-leaning respondents were more concerned about students falling behind pushed in the same direction, but school leaders did not need polls or survey evidence to see the damage done to their students last spring. With no quick fix for broadband access this fall, it is understandable that they disproportionately saw providing the option to return to in-person learning as the best way forward.
You may find this logic wholly unconvincing when politics is a simpler, more familiar alternative. It is possible to look at this evidence and still believe politics influenced Red states inhabitants’ expectations about the length or threat of the virus, which caused remote learning differences last spring and still drive reopening decisions this fall. However, if political polarization explains schools’ pandemic responses in the fall, it should also explain the actual differences evident in Red states in the spring.
Politics alone is a weak explanation for those differences. All school districts in Red, Blue, and Purple states shut down in the spring, and all districts retooled their schools to provide remote learning platforms. Red, Blue, and Purple states diverged in the kinds of platforms schools offered, and there is nothing inherently political about providing lessons on Zoom or using alternatives like Google Classroom or instructional packets.
Structural factors, like broadband access, shorter school years, and more rural students, are more directly connected to the forms of learning offered in the spring. Those non-political factors combined to produce less effective remote learning in Red states in the spring, created yet another compelling reason for pragmatic school leaders to prioritize in-person reopening so that students could make up lost ground.
If “It’s the politics, stupid” cannot explain the differences seen in remote learning last spring, we should doubt its power to explain reopening this fall.
In this age of polarization, nearly every aspect of our lives is colored by politics, and questions about reopening schools are no exception. But rank politics is better for selling papers and enflaming indignity than adequately explaining professional decisions.
The future may show that returning in-person this fall proved foolish, or that returning remote was excessive caution that cost students dearly. Until then, we should remember that most school leaders are making difficult decisions in good faith while considering a host of factors ahead of politics, like they did last spring.
Nat Malkus is a resident scholar and deputy director for Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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