October 19, 2022

Patrick Wall: More than politics

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The standard narratives reopening– or not– of US schools has been “the unions were responsible” or “politics were behind it.” But Patrick Wall reports for Chalkbeat that new research says that neither story is correct.

Together, the studies indicate that districts responded to evolving conditions on the ground during a period of intense uncertainty, basing their actions on COVID spread, health guidelines, teacher demands, and parent preferences. As to whether politics or science guided decision-making, the emerging research suggests, the answer is both/and.

“The decisions were not as black and white as the popular discourse made it out to be, and which some of the early research studies fit into,” said Jeremy Singer, a postdoctoral researcher at Michigan State University who co-authored one of the recent studies. “It’s a much more nuanced story.”

Looking at Ohio schools, researchers found that decisions had a lot more to do with conditions on the ground, such as shifts in COVID rates.

By looking at districts’ weekly COVID data, the researchers found that rising case counts during in-person learning made districts less likely to keep schools open the following week. The effect waned over time, a sign that officials came to rely less on infection rates as they learned more about COVID spread and risks, the researchers propose. The study also found that districts were more likely to open schools when neighboring districts did so.

Taken together, the findings suggest that district leaders “were acting like rational decision-makers facing uncertainty,” said Brian Jacob, an education policy professor at the University of Michigan, who co-authored the study with Alvin Christian and John Singleton. “That’s a very different picture of school districts and school boards than, ‘They’re only focused on political partisanship.’”

Read the full article for more details of what the research found. 

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