Exterior the Field: This desk exhibits what issues when faculties announce plans to reopen COVID-19

Preschoolers and their teachers at a summer session in Monterey Park, California.

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One of the most consistent – and craziest – aspects of Betsy DeVos' legacy as education minister will be the way she has politically charged complicated educational issues.

By reducing nuanced topics to a simple guideline or judgment, she has assigned her reputation – and hence President Trump's reputation – to these positions and made the issues as polarizing as the two. There are plenty of examples, from charter schools to Title IX.

Now, however, we have a problem that appears to be more complicated with higher stakes than anything the education community has seen in decades. Local and government decision-makers must decide whether, when and how schools should open in a dangerous and unpredictable pandemic. These decisions are challenging in many ways, from innumerable logistical considerations to ethical questions about how to balance public health risks against school closure costs. Considerations vary from city to city (and school) based on local infection rates, school resources, and community needs.

Now that the reopening of the school has been politicized – like wearing masks and hydroxychloroquine before – we are all in a precarious position to have local and state leaders who, knowingly or not, could make politics a priority over security and reason .

It would be hoped that the federal government would – and would expect – to respond with respect to local leaders, generous resources to support school opening and distance learning, and clarity about medical research and best practices. However, the reaction of the federal government has largely failed to meet this standard. The Trump administration's message was to open the school doors no matter what. Reporting on the negotiations between the White House and Republican lawmakers suggests that almost half of the funds for K-12 schools in the COVID-19 aid package may not be available to schools that cannot be reopened with personal learning. The CDC guidelines on reopening schools are so politicized that they are no longer credible.

This puts local decision-makers in a precarious position to make reopening decisions with insufficient resources and information, as well as problematic incentives. In addition, now that the reopening of the school has been politicized – like wearing masks and hydroxychloroquine previously – we are all in a precarious position to have local and state leaders who knowingly or not make politics a priority over safety and reason when making decisions could concede.

An analysis of plans to reopen the school

I have aggregated data from several sources to get a feel for whether the reopening decisions so far have been more related to public health or politics. I downloaded an EdWeek database of plans to reopen school districts, which had approximately 13 million students represented in 256 districts on July 27 (excluding districts with plans coded as "undecided" and Puerto Rico, which did not respond U.S. Presidential Elections).

Because school district boundaries do not match district boundaries in some states, I used data from the U.S. Department of Education to determine the district's primary location. I then merged data from the MIT Election Data + Science Lab with district presidential election results 2016 and data from USAFacts, showing the number of new COVID-19 cases by county from July 1-25. The idea is to see what happens more related to these district decisions (though not necessarily causal), local health conditions, or politics.

Figure 1 below shows that reopening decisions correlate much more strongly with local political attitudes. Each point on the scatterplot represents a school district. The light blue dots represent districts that, according to EdWeek's coding, had announced the announcement of a full personal reopening for all students (the Trump administration's preferred approach). The dark blue dots represent districts that have announced plans for distance learning only. The x-axis shows the percentage of population in each county reporting a new COVID-19 case in July (through July 25), while the y-axis shows Trump's vote share at the county level in the 2016 elections.

If public health considerations dictated district decisions, we might expect to see the light blue dots on the left and the dark blue dots on the right. This would mean that districts with relatively high COVID-19 rates per capita opt for distance learning.

In reality, there is no visual or statistical connection between the reopening decisions of the school districts and the new COVID-19 cases in their district per capita.

In contrast, there is a strong visual and statistical relationship between district reopening decisions and district level support for Trump in the 2016 elections. Districts in districts that support Trump are more likely to have announced plans to open personally.

On average, districts that have announced plans to reopen personally are in counties where 55% voted for Trump in 2016, compared with 35% in districts that announced plans for remote learning. It is not surprising that the remaining group in EdWeek's data – “Hybrid / Partial” – is exactly in the middle with 44%.

This data is not perfect. For example, the EdWeek database of district reopening plans is incomplete, and school districts are not perfectly aligned with counties. However, the patterns are so clear and the regression results are so consistent (e.g. control over various variables and limitation of the time frame for district announcements) that it seems implausible that politics is not an essential factor in the district decision.

looking ahead

There was some optimism that local leaders will put national politics aside when making decisions about fall school plans. However, we need to make it clear that national politics – and the conditions associated with federal funding – can influence the decisions of local and state leaders. Politicization has become a direct concern of the COVID-19 aid package, which is now threatening to withhold funds from school districts in hard-hit areas that need to build distance learning capacities. As Sarah Reber and Nora Gordon have argued, Congress must act quickly and generously without pursuing a policy to reopen the school.

Now is the time for local and state decision-makers to focus on the well-being of their communities, regardless of how this relates to questions of ideology and national politics. Better management by the federal government would of course take us far in this direction.

Jon Valant is a senior fell at the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy. Follow him on Twitter @JonValant. This was originally published on the Brookings Institution's Chalkboard blog.

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