Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Local support for president, more than coronavirus spread, may have influenced rural schools to reopen, research finds

"As cases of the virus continue to spread, the role that schools do or do not play in spreading the virus, and the wisdom of keeping school doors shut to try to contain the pandemic, have become divisive subjects," Andrew Ujifusa reports for Education Week. "There's evidence that the presence of unions and community support for President Donald Trump had a significantly bigger influence on school districts' decisions about holding in-person classes than the local spread of the coronavirus, two researchers say."

Michael Hartney of Boston College and Leslie Finger of the University of North Texas, both political-science professors, examined more than 10,000 school districts' reopening plans and "the correlation between those decisions and indicators based on politics, public health, and market forces," Ujifusa reports. "The paper also embodies the challenge of measuring how political considerations have driven school reopening decisions during the pandemic amid a flurry of factors. And some would disagree that political and not practical considerations have been the overriding factor in many districts' decisions."

Though the paper doesn't point to definitive answers about when schools should reopen, "It might help fuel debates about what factors schools have relied on and should be relying on the most when making big decisions that must balance the safety and well-being of their students, staff, and communities," Ujifusa reports.

One caveat about the report: though it links Trump support with schools' decision to reopen, the researchers didn't look into local broadband connectivity as a factor in reopening (though it's arguably difficult to assess broadband connectivity because of the Federal Communications Commission's faulty data maps). Without widespread broadband connectivity, it's more difficult to do distance learning, and that could have influenced schools to reopen in-person classes. So it's possible that poor broadband connectivity and Trump support, both common in rural areas, may be somewhat conflated.

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