Pandemic school reopenings were not just about politics

Originally published in on May 23, 2022.

Almost as soon as some schools reopened for in-person learning in the fall of 2020, research was suggesting a tidy, albeit dark, conclusion about why they did: politics. Early analyses indicated that Covid-19 health factors had virtually nothing to do with reopening decisions, and partisan politics could explain nearly all the variation.

There were early signs that this narrative didn’t explain the full story. If allegiance to former President Donald Trump (in schools that opened) or teacher unions (in those that stayed closed) were all that mattered, why did support for reopening schools also drop among Republican voters over the summer? And what about the conflicting recommendations coming from federal health and education departments at that time? Nevertheless, the idea that Covid-19 was not a real factor was repeated by some of the nation’s most influential journalists and media outlets, and framed as though the question was generally settled.

This is typical in policy research: Initial waves of data often attract lots of attention, and can quickly ossify into conventional wisdom. When subsequent, often deeper inquiry reveals alternative or more nuanced explanations, it tends to receive far less notice.

That’s what’s been happening with research into school closures. More recent studies have found that, far from being irrelevant, Covid-19 indicators were among central factors predicting whether schools would reopen.

Researchers say they also still haven’t fully understood how other factors — like school governance and parent preferences — influenced Covid-19 school decisions. A new study, published recently by two education researchers from George Mason University, replicates some earlier findings and explores new potential variables. All in all, it continues adding to a picture that’s more complex than the early analyses suggested.

This debate might seem moot: Schools have been back to in-person learning this school year, and parents largely report satisfaction with their child’s progress. But the consequences of these decisions continue to linger. Many educators say things have not yet returned to normalEmpirical research suggests some of the most negative academic effects were experienced disproportionately by low-income students and students of color. Moreover, future pandemics remain a threat, and district leaders may one day again be charged with navigating similar circumstances.

A new study reinforces that school opening decisions were complicated

The narrative that school reopening decisions were all about politics coalesced early. One of the first pieces of evidence came from a Brookings Institution blog post published in July 2020, where senior fellow 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 county-level support for Trump in the 2016 election. The implication was that communities that take their cues from then-President Trump were more willing to resume in-person instruction.

Additional research emerged in the following months reiterating that health concerns were not a significant factor. “We find evidence that politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making,” concluded political scientists Michael Hartney and Leslie Finger in an October 2020 analysis.

But as time passed, and more schools reopened, the picture grew more complicated. A July 2021 analysis compared fall 2020 reopening factors to those in spring 2021. Tulane economists Douglas Harris and Daniel Oliver found Covid-19 rates were one significant predictor of fall school reopening. Over time, the role of both politics and health factors declined, Harris and Oliver observed, while the demographics of a given community remained a strong predictor throughout the year. (This was knotty, they note, given the “close interplay between demographics, parental work situations, and COVID health risks.”)

The latest addition to the research literature was published this month by two George Mason professors, Matthew Steinberg and David Houston. Their working paper — which has not yet been peer-reviewed — affirmed some of the core findings of earlier studies: Higher rates of in-person instruction during fall 2020 occurred in areas with weaker unions and that leaned Republican, and rates of Covid-19 were correlated with reopening decisions.

The new paper looks at how factors predicting in-person schooling changed over the course of the 2021-21 academic year. Covid-19 case and death rates, political partisanship, and teacher union strength became “less potent predictors” over time. As the year stretched on, Steinberg and Houston also observed that communities with a history of higher standardized test scores grew significantly more likely to reopen school buildings than their lower-achieving counterparts.

“This pattern may help us understand the widening test score gaps that have emerged in the wake of the pandemic,” they write.

Sarah Reckhow, a political scientist at Michigan State University who was involved in a study that found local school district decisions were heavily tied to political partisanship and union strength, called Houston and Steinberg’s study “great” — and noted the importance of replication in policy research.

While her own research found school reopening to be less tied to Covid-19 severity, she said there was still a relationship to Covid-19 rates observed in some aspects of their model.

Harris told Vox he agreed with the new working paper’s conclusions — that reopening was about more than just politics — which largely mirrored his prior research. He also praised the new study for tracking how factors that seemed to drive in-person instruction changed over time. “That was novel and interesting and important,” Harris said.

Steinberg and Houston’s study leveraged county-level data from a private firm, Burbio, which tracked in-person and virtual learning for 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 analytic choices that go into descriptive analyses of imperfect data, and we do not have a strong bone to pick with the other studies,” Steinberg told Vox, but emphasized that many of these minor choices can have “nontrivial implications” for interpreting results.

Brad Marianno, an education policy researcher at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, told Vox he is skeptical of Burbio’s ability to accurately capture in-person instruction rates, and thought a school district-level analysis (like one he published earlier this year) would have been better than a county-level approach. Still, he praised the new paper, including for performing its analysis over time. “We need multiple efforts at the question, especially efforts that employ similar and different datasets and measures, to really triangulate a data-driven answer,” he said.

Sarah Cohodes, a Columbia University economist who has studied pandemic differences between charter schools and traditional public schools, said there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to measuring by county or school-district levels. “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 made it easier to reopen schools

One of the most novel elements of Steinberg and Houston’s study is their suggestion of a previously unexplored factor predicting in-person instruction: local support for teachers. Using multiple surveys with different sampling strategies and question wordings, the George Mason professors found that pre-pandemic support for increases in 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 raises for teachers were also more likely to have in-person learning.

Other education policy scholars told Vox they’d need more time to consider that connection. Reckhow called it “a really intriguing result” but one that left her with “many questions” about the underlying mechanisms that might explain the finding. “Without more information, it’s hard for me to develop a fully satisfactory explanation,” she said.

Steinberg stressed that what he sees as so “revelatory” about this finding, which was based on data from two different nationally representative surveys, is that it suggests to him there was something about communities that valued their teachers more highly that potentially made it easier for schools to open for in-person learning.

“Some of these little p-politics in communities matter, and whether or not there is preexisting trust could make the logistical complexity of reopening manageable for leaders or unmanageable,” he said.

As time marches on, it can be easy to forget just how acute the uncertainty was for school administrators during the 2020-21 school year, particularly before vaccines were available. Everything looks crisper in hindsight. But given the tremendous implications for students, schools, and families — and that administrators may one day again find themselves in similar positions — researchers will likely study those decisions for years to come.


Leaders at Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS Hesitated to Tell Families About Staff COVID-19 Cases and HVAC Systems In Repair

Originally published in Washington City Paper on August 23, 2021.

Three staff members at the Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School tested positive for COVID-19 since returning to work in-person on Aug. 11, a fact the school did not share with families until the evening of Friday, Aug. 20, after City Paper asked why parents had not been informed. Students are set to return for in-person classes on Wednesday, Aug. 25. Sundai Riggins, the head of school, says they notify “those who [are] in close contact and those present in the building” when there are positive cases and “no students or families are currently in the building.” 

On the afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 19, school leadership sent an email to parents informing them that their previously scheduled in-person “Meet Your Teacher” day planned for Friday, Aug. 20, would now be held virtually to reduce risk ahead of students returning to school next week.  

That same day, unbeknownst to parents, District Urgent Care staff was on site providing rapid and PCR tests to school employees; DC Health recommends that any close contact, even those who are fully vaccinated, get tested 3 to 5 days after an exposure. While no rapid tests were positive, the results of the PCR tests were still pending as of Friday night.

Friday morning, hours before the virtual parent meetings, school leadership shared staff on a document with talking points to use in their forthcoming discussions, which directed teachers to keep the positive cases to themselves.  

Among other things, if a parent or guardian asked their child’s teacher if someone at the school had gotten COVID—which happened in three confirmed instances in the past week—staff were instructed to say, “ITDS, like almost all other communities, has experienced positive cases of COVID since the pandemic began in March 2020.” The talking points continue to say, “ITDS is dedicated to the balance of transparency with our community while respecting the private health information of students, staff, and families.”

“I felt like we were being asked to lie,” one employee told City Paper.

Teachers and staff returned to the school building on Aug. 11, where roughly 80 employees have been gathering in a large multipurpose room for training and activities. Employees generally wear masks, though face coverings are removed occasionally for snacking and drinking. More than 90 percent of employees are fully vaccinated, according to the school. All staff members, except those with a medical or religious exemption, are required to be fully vaccinated.

The following Monday, Aug. 16, all staff were notified in an email from school COO Kate Keplinger that a fellow employee who had been with them on Wednesday and Thursday the week prior had tested positive. The email said all non-fully-vaccinated people had been notified, and fully vaccinated people should monitor themselves for symptoms for the next 14 days but need not quarantine.

That same day, two more staff members tested positive for COVID-19, a fact school leadership learned about Monday evening, but did not tell staff about until the following morning, when they all gathered together again in-person for training. At 12:27 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 17, Keplinger reiterated in an email to staff that two more employees had tested positive, and that they had last been inside the school building the day before. She informed staff that District Urgent Care would be available on Thursday to test any staff who was interested. DC Health’s guidance states fully vaccinated close contacts do not need to quarantine but should get tested 3 to 5 days after exposure.

City Paper asked if all staff involved in the trainings got the provided PCR and rapid testing. Riggins said “the majority of staff” took a rapid test and did not respond about PCR testing. When asked why the tests were optional rather than required for exposed staff, Riggins said, “Optional testing is in compliance with ADA [the Americans with Disabilities Act] and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.” 

But requiring COVID-19 testing if local public health authorities recommend it, which they currently do, is permitted under both statutes. 

“It is not a violation of the ADA or the Civil Rights Act to mandate testing,” Lawrence Gostin, a professor of health law at Georgetown University, told City Paper. “If the staff member refuses to be tested, DC Health should order them to be quarantined for 10 to 14 days. Health and safety must always be the highest priority in schools. That means either getting tested or being quarantined. There are no other safe or reasonable options.” 

Riggins did not return multiple requests for additional comment.

One Inspired Teaching employee, worried about the in-person event with parents still on the books for Friday, and about other issues with COVID-19 mitigation at their school, reached out Wednesday afternoon to the Office of the D.C. Auditor. ODCA told the employee they would be treated as a whistleblower, according to the employee, who later reached out to City Paper.

City Paper contacted D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson on Saturday to ask what her office did with the information provided to them by the concerned staff member, and if they could share any correspondence they may have sent to other agencies or Inspired Teaching.

Patterson confirmed an employee reached out, and said they consider the employee “a whistleblower because the individual did not want their name used in any way from concern about possible reprisal.” Patterson said ODCA shared the information they learned from the employee with DC Health in case it could provide additional information beyond what the agency had already learned through the city’s contact tracing program.

Patterson—acknowledging that D.C. government emails are public information unless explicitly exempted under FOIA—shared the following from the email her office sent to DC Health.

Our office received a whistleblower alert from a staff member at Inspired Teaching Public Charter School about an outbreak. I’m sharing it with you as it seemed concerning, especially since an in-person back to school night is scheduled for Friday:

The whistleblower shared that at least 3 symptomatic staff at Inspired Teaching Public Charter School have tested positive for COVID via rapid tests after participating in a staff training conducted inside at the school. Other staff were not informed of these positive cases, and the school leader continued to organize additional days of the in-person training. Staff were also not instructed to quarantine. The school is hosting a large in-person “meet your teacher” event this Friday. The whistleblower is concerned that Friday’s event if it continues could infect more people. Additionally, half of the school does not have a functioning HVAC system nor the ability to open windows. Families have not been informed about the cases nor the lack of ventilation. The whistleblower has communicated with DC Health contact tracers who have been helpful.

Please let us know if more details would be helpful to DC Health. I know you will have at least some of this information via contact tracing.

Also, moving forward, how should school staff report such concerns to DC Health?

Patterson did not say whether DC Health responded to her office’s note.

DC Health did not return requests for comment on this story. 

As noted in Patterson’s email, Inspired Teaching had also been dealing for weeks with ventilation issues, though parents were not informed until Friday night, following inquiries from City Paper. “[W]e are currently repairing parts of our HVAC system, which has caused some cooling units to not work in a few classrooms,” the school told parents that night. At a Back to School Zoom meeting held for parents the prior evening, Inspired Teaching’s presentation read:

Mary Pitts, a parent of two Inspired Teaching students, told City Paper she was comfortable with how the school responded to the positive cases and, given the timing of them, did not feel it was necessary for school leadership to alert parents of those cases or of the broken HVAC systems ahead of students arriving on Wednesday.

“As school is starting every year, people get sick or last minute changes happen, and I very much presume that we, as parents, don’t expect to have insight into all of that,” she said, noting it’s typically hectic for schools before the start of any school year. “I feel for the staff—trying to react in an environment that is changing a lot, but I think [the school] put their protocols in place and it sounds like they deployed them.” Pitts praised the administration for responding to parent feedback around making outdoor lunch an option when weather permits, and said she and other parents are looking forward to sending their children back for in-person learning.