Why Did So Many Public Schools Stay Remote During the COVID Crisis?

We examine how a wide variety of community and school district characteristics may have affected the likelihood of schools reopening in this national analysis of data from fall 2020 and spring 2021.

COVER COVID Reopenings Fall Spring
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In a new study, we extend our earlier work on the initial months of the COVID outbreak and describe the patterns of school reopening during fall 2020 and spring 2021. We examine what predicted whether schools opened in person, hybrid, or remote, and what this tells us about the underlying reasons behind education leaders’ decisions. We find that decisions about whether to reopen K-12 schools in the United States in fall 2020 and spring 2021 were linked to community demographics, health considerations, and political factors.

Other studies have examined the same topic and concluded that political factors were the driving force behind school reopening, much more so than health risks. This study analyzed a wider range of factors than earlier studies. After accounting for various differences between school districts, researchers concluded that measures like demographics and COVID positivity rates also played a role in reopening decisions. Key findings include:

  • Demographics were strong predictors of fall school reopenings: Schools in districts with greater Black and Latinx populations, and people living in poverty, were more likely to have remote instruction.
  • Health considerations also predicted school reopenings: Communities with higher COVID positivity rates were more likely to have remote learning in the fall.
  • Political factors were also important to reopening decisions: Consistent with other studies, we find that schools in communities with a higher share of Democratic voters were more likely to stay remote in the fall. Union representation of teachers also predicted more remote instruction, but to a much lesser extent than Democratic vote share.
  • Most other factors we examined did not consistently predict fall school reopenings: Higher broadband access sometimes predicted more remote schooling, but per pupil spending and school districts’ charter and private school enrollment did not consistently predict reopening.

“Identifying the real causes of school reopenings is complicated by the fact that demographic factors are so closely related to COVID health outcomes and political orientation,” stated study co-author and REACH Director Douglas Harris. “This makes it difficult to separate one factor from another.”

“Other research has shown that remote learning is less effective than in-person learning,” said study co-author Daniel Oliver, an economist at Tulane University. “Because we find that districts with higher percentages of Black and Latinx students were less likely to reopen in person, the negative effects of remote learning may fall disproportionately on students of color.”

“Politics certainly mattered when deciding whether to reopen schools, but the picture is more complicated than that,” Harris said. “Especially in our politically polarized world, it is important not to over-state the role that politics play in important decisions.”

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