OPINION: Football aside, politics isn’t influencing school pandemic plans

Researchers find pragmatism rather than partisanship guides reopening strategies

In a guest column today, education researchers share their findings that, of the 50 U.S. states and 120 largest school districts, most are making decisions related to the pandemic based not on partisanship, but on tradeoffs between safety and academics. One area where they suggest politics may matter is football: red states are less likely to end or delay football season.

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, where Martha Bradley-Dorsey is a doctoral degree candidate and a Bastiat Research Sequence Fellow with the Mercatus Center. David Marshall is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership, and Technology at Auburn University and the co-chair of the Alabama Public Charter School Commission.

By Robert Maranto, David Marshall and Martha Bradley-Dorsey

Listening to national news in an election season, one might think everything including fighting a pandemic represents scorched earth partisan politics.

Meantime, in 50 states and 13,600 local school districts, COVID-19 school opening polices show both the best and worst of American government. Some are defending their turf. Yet, in other cases pragmatic politicians and educators are fashioning compromises between safety and the various missions of public education. These tradeoffs always involve competing values, but seldom involve partisan politics. At the same time, we do worry that those compromises could leave the academic missions of schooling behind.

We spent the past month examining the ever-changing policies regarding reopening schools in the 50 states and the nation’s 120 largest school districts, with the peer reviewed results about to appear in the Journal of School Choice. We stress that conditions and policies change daily, but so far, here is what we found.

First, in some states the guidelines for reopening schools are opaque, putting bureaucratic evasion of accountability over students' education. The 1,190-page “guidance” to school districts in Kansas seems unlikely to help educators and students. Other states have prioritized turf. From March to August, the Pennsylvania Department of Education refused to fund cyber charter schools for increased enrollments even though the cybers have years of experience teaching online, a move designed to protect traditional public schools from enrollment losses rather than help students. (Full disclosure: one of us serves on the unpaid board of a non-profit cyber charter school.)

Second, a key reality is that unlike prior pandemics, this one harms very few students. The first 15,596 COVID-19 deaths in California included only three school-age children, fewer than in some flu seasons. Just 1.5% of California’s fatalities were under age 35, while 64% were aged 70 or older.

Accordingly, we believe states should attempt to protect older educators, and older family members of students. Many do just that. Alabama, Nevada, Colorado, California, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Alaska are among those advocating that school districts encourage vulnerable school staff to teach online from home. All states and all the districts we studied now offer online options, which the physically vulnerable or those with vulnerable relatives might use.

Third, while state policies vary, two-thirds of the largest 120 local school districts have all their classes online. This varies by wealth, with nearly half of high-income school districts but less than a quarter of low-income ones having some or most classes in person. Years of research leads us to recommend in-person teaching as the default: students generally learn less in online settings than in physical schools, with the gaps particularly severe for low income children, who usually get less help from their parents. (See, for example, here and here.)

Academics count, and disadvantaged students learn more when encouraged by face-to-face teachers, as opposed to online teachers they can simply switch off. America’s reluctance to reopen physical schools contradicts educators' constant talk about equity.

Fortunately, states like Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, and Massachusetts urge local school districts to continue to operate physical schools, explicitly citing their better and more equitable academic results. Similarly, we surveyed educators in 16 European and Asian nations, finding that all are operating physical schools this fall, including some with high COVID-19 caseloads like the United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy. Seven of these nations reopened schools last spring, early in the pandemic, albeit with basic precautions like masks, social distancing, and keeping the windows open to circulate air. Facing difficult tradeoffs, they prioritized student learning.

While we generally found little evidence that partisanship affected state and local level responses to COVID-19, one notable exception involved football, which some consider the key mission of high school.

The 19 states which are having high school football seasons proceed as usual gave Donald Trump a mean of 54.73% of the vote, compared to 51.43% in the 14 states that are delaying football season for COVID-19, and just 40.93% for those cancelling fall football, a statistically significant difference. Massachusetts is a notable exception, a deep blue state which is moving forward with fall athletics. Of course, contact sports generally place students in closer proximity to one another than most classroom activities.

On how much Americans value contact sports, maybe the nation really is divided as the pundits say. But we are glad that in other ways partisanship matters less than advertised -- we just wish learning mattered more.

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