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How do Americans really feel about reopening schools?

Parents with less at stake may be pushing harder for in-person learning

- March 9, 2021

Public schools across the United States have been operating during the coronavirus pandemic, mostly via remote instruction or hybrid learning models. The big question now is when K-12 schools will bring students back into schools for in-person instruction.

It’s a question spawning fierce debates around the country. Yet we have not received a clear answer. So, who actually supports reopening schools, and why?

To address this question, I fielded a national survey of Americans’ opinions of education policy issues, looking primarily at the issue of reopening schools. The survey data suggest Americans are as divided as their political leaders about whether schools should resume in-person instruction. However, a closer look reveals that the political and financial motivations of the middle and upper classes may be drowning out health-related concerns of the most vulnerable.

The stakes are high, particularly for underserved groups

A recent McKinsey report estimates that students are learning only 67 percent of the math they’d typically learn in a year, and that number slumps to 59 percent for students in schools mainly serving children of color. Millions of children are falling behind.

To complicate matters, schools are not major sites for coronavirus transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But they can facilitate high levels of transmission in communities with lots of cases — in other words, it’s only safe inside a school if it’s safe outside the school. This alone makes it challenging to have a solid stance on reopening.

But when it comes to what the public wants, are the motivations for reopening schools even about student learning and the public health risks, or is it about something else? My research suggests that support for school reopening is highest among White parents of means, a group less likely to have experienced the harshest effects of the pandemic relative to other groups of parents.

How I did my research

I fielded a national survey through the research firm Prolific on Jan. 21. To examine attitudes on school reopenings, I asked respondents this question: A number of schools around the U.S. are attempting to reopen for in-person instruction. Do you agree or disagree with schools reopening for in-person instruction? Survey participants provided responses ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” My final sample include 806 respondents — a nationally representative survey weighted to census information across income levels, race, ethnicity and gender.

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Americans are split; parents more likely to favor reopening schools

Americans, on average, are virtually split down the middle on their views toward resuming standard in-person instruction. Exactly 44 percent of the sample expressed support for reopening, with exactly 44 percent opposed. However, a more nuanced picture comes into focus when accounting for additional factors.

For example, parents of school-age children were 12 percentage points more likely to support reopening schools than non-parents and parents of children who are not school age (53 percent in favor vs. 41 percent). The parents most supportive of reopening schools (59 percent) were those who did not say that “children of people like them” would suffer learning losses because of the pandemic. However, parents concerned with learning loss were not far behind (53 percent), when compared with non-parents concerned with learning loss (41 percent) and non-parents who weren’t (40 percent).

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On average, a slight majority of parents want to see children in schools. This makes sense considering that parents of school-age children were five percentage points more likely to indicate that they have suffered economically because of the coronavirus. However, the push to reopen would appear to be spearheaded by the parents whose children are privileged enough to have faced no issues with learning loss.

Race and class matter

A deeper look into the data suggests that social and economic privilege seem to be driving preferences for school reopening. For instance, reports from public health experts have consistently noted that lower-income Americans and people of color have been hit hardest by the pandemic. I find that survey respondents from low-income households are almost 20 percentage points less likely to support reopening schools (35 percent) compared with those in high-income households (54 percent), as shown in the figure below.

Similarly, Latinx Americans (33 percent) are less likely than White Americans (47 percent) to support reopening schools — and that support deficit widens when comparing preferences of Black Americans and White Americans.

It’s not about public health

How much do public health findings play into the survey responses? Those who had tested positive or knew someone who had contact with the coronavirus were no less likely to support reopening schools than those reporting no contact at all. But it’s worth noting that among respondents who reported having contact with the virus, people of color were about 17 points less likely (30 percent) than White respondents (47 percent) to support reopening schools. Meanwhile, those who expressed no intention of getting the coronavirus vaccine were six points more likely to support reopening schools than people who had already been vaccinated and 16 points more likely than those still waiting to be immunized.

It’s about political and economic interest

Strong support for reopening schools seems to reflect both economic and political factors. Individuals who reported not being financially impacted by the pandemic were more likely to support reopening schools than those who lost a job or work hours, as shown in the figure below.

The most drastic divide, though, is along party identification. The figure below shows nearly two-thirds of Republicans in the sample supported reopening schools, compared with only one-third of Democrats. Independents sit in the middle with nearly 50 percent of them in support.

Overall, my results suggest that everyday Americans remain as divided as elected officials across the country, when it comes to decisions on how to safely reopen schools. These divides, however, appear less rooted in differing understandings of science or risk. Rather, they reflect pronounced concerns coming from those at the margins: Those who have already lost the most during the pandemic remain wary of sending their children back into schools. These findings suggest that lawmakers at the federal, state and local levels — all of whom are under immense public pressure to reopen school buildings and resume in-person learning — might want to look closely at the needs and concerns of communities that remain under attack by the deadliest virus of our time.

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Jonathan E. Collins is an assistant professor of education and political science at Brown University.