Skip to content
What the Narrative on School Reopenings Has Missed
Go to my account

What the Narrative on School Reopenings Has Missed

Despite the attention that teachers unions have generated, surveys show that parents have been reluctant to rush back to in-person instruction.

For the last several months, the most prominent public commentary related to reopening schools has been mostly incredulous. I can’t believe teachers unions are keeping schools closed! Why in the world won’t schools just follow the science and get students back in classrooms?

This has suggested that local leaders have been making unwise, even indefensible, decisions—caving to interest groups, putting their heads in the sand, and disregarding the needs of kids, families, and communities.

But the high-profile fights between frustrated parents and unions in districts such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Fairfax County, Virginia, paint a distorted picture. It fails to reflect both what has been happening across much of the country and the complex calculations being made by parents. More broadly, our national conversation has given short shrift to pluralism and democracy. We should expect that different areas will come to different conclusions on important matters, and local self-government means different communities’ public institutions will follow different paths.

In truth, decisions about reopening public schools have tracked public opinion far better than you might know. This should come as no surprise, since school districts are democratically controlled. Now that we’ve turned a corner on the pandemic and families are feeling more comfortable about in-person education, we’re almost certain to see rapid growth in the number of schools opening their doors. 

The comfort of citizens and parents in any particular geography—not missives from the CDC, studies from universities, or prodding from politicians—is proving to be the key factor in returning to normal. Indeed, though school systems have gotten lousy press for months on end, there might come a time when we see the behavior of American K-12 education during the COVID era as typifying decentralization and democracy in action.

America has more than 13,000 school districts because we want schooling decisions to be made close to home. We want a system that inhibits the meddling of distant “experts,” because they don’t know our kids, our neighborhoods, and our priorities. We want school-system leaders to be responsive to their communities’ views. This is why the vast majority of school districts are governed by elected board members and why most districts have just a handful of schools—nearly half have fewer than 1,000 students; a third have one or two schools. This is also why many support school choice: Those closest to kids, those who love them the most, are best positioned to make decisions on their behalf.

But this logic has been largely shelved for months. The national discussion of school closures has been dominated by experts’ explanations of what should be done instead of focusing on what parents and communities are thinking or, relatedly, local leaders’ deliberations. Too often, when schools didn’t do what commentators wanted, the education system was accused of ignoring evidence, kowtowing to unions, or playing petty politics.

But last summer, 71 percent of parents said it would be risky to send their children back to school in the fall, and 80 percent of mothers reported discomfort with the idea of sending their children back to daycare or school. In January, a slight majority of parents still expressed discomfort with sending their kids back to school. Two surveys early in 2021 asked parents what type of schooling model they preferred given their local conditions: One found only 27 percent of parents wanting only in-person schooling; the other found 34 percent. 

These stated views were borne out in practice—in many locations, when given the opportunity to return to in-person schooling, high percentages of families remained remote. In New York City, more than half of the 1 million-plus students opted to stay at home.

Some seemed to believe that families would change their minds if only they were given expert advice. But families saw that during the COVID era experts made key mistakes on all sorts of matters and changed their minds on others, such as the value of masks, what constituted a safe social distance, what was required for schools to reopen, and whether we should assiduously avoid possible infection or take part in social-justice protests. Some thought families would change course if they were told of the costs of extended remote learning. There were countless articles about the potential for substantial learning losses and spikes in mentalhealth issues.

But families were well aware of such downsides. In summer 2020, the parents of 71 percent of students believed their kids were learning less because of closures; by the end of the year, it was still 60 percent. In January, less than 20 percent of district-school parents responded “very well” when asked about their students’ emotional and social development during the school year. In February, 68 percent said they worried some or a lot about their kids’ missing social interactions. In other words, parents weren’t blind to the costs of school closures; many had simply concluded that the costs of prematurely returning to in-person were greater.

A final too-little-appreciated fact is that most parents over the last year have been pleased by their schools’ decisions and programs. It appears that families appreciated schools’ efforts to, among other things, quickly learn how to provide real-time online instruction, offer asynchronous lessons, engage dozens of students in online discussions, provide extra support to students with special needs, and make meals available to low-income kids. Despite many obstacles—issues related to student privacy, the lack of devices, staffing, and more—schools and families were making do. 

In summer 2020, the parents of 72 percent of students were satisfied by their schools’ response to the pandemic. By the end of the calendar year, parents of 74 percent of students said they were satisfied “with the instruction and activities provided.” Those in in-person schooling were a bit more satisfied, but, despite the crescendo in open-the-schools commentary, nearly 70 percent of families in remote learning were satisfied. A different survey found that 75 percent of families were getting the type of instruction they wanted, and in February, 74 percent said their schools were doing an excellent or good job with the quality of teaching and learning.

A February survey found that only 26 percent of parents of public-school students thought their schools were not opening quickly enough—68 percent said the pace of opening was either about right or too quick. As an assessment of survey data by Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat, an education-reporting outlet, put it, “parents’ preferences mostly match up with their reality” and “schools nationwide have been responsive to families as they craft their instructional plans.”

This mirrors a finding from a broader public opinion survey in January. Asked to rate various institutions’ response to COVID, voters gave higher marks to schools and school districts than local and national news outlets, state governments, the federal government, and national and international corporations. Maybe most interestingly, public-school parents are still nearly twice as likely as voters in general to think their local school districts are headed in the right direction.

So while the national conventional wisdom was that unions were keeping schools closed and deserved the public’s ire, many families saw things differently. For sure, scads of stories recounted union-led efforts to slow or halt re-opening; but that didn’t translate into anti-union animus. A survey with several years of data showed that parents’ support for unions hadn’t eroded at all during the pandemic. A February survey—after nearly a year of the pandemic and lots of bad media coverage—found that only 14 percent of parents believed unions were having a very or somewhat negative influence on public schools’ plans for returning to in-person learning. A different survey from January found that 67 percent of school parents believed teachers unions to be somewhat or very helpful to student learning. In a February survey 73 percent of families said teachers’ unions should have a lot or some influence on school reopening decisions. Perhaps local unions understood families’ sensibilities better than national commentators. 

These survey results tell us that, in general, America’s families were making prudential choices. Although they were cognizant of the negative consequences of shuttered schools, they had misgivings about the safety of in-person learning, and they liked how their local schools had responded to the pandemic. No number of op-eds could incite a national parental uprising when so many families believed their schools were making the best of a bad situation.

A big part of the reason that such a large proportion of American families expressed satisfaction with their schools’ decisions is because different districts were doing different things. After the initial wave of state-mandated closures, most states have left it up to districts to decide how and when to reopen; as of the end of March 2021, only eight states had passed any kind of in-person-schooling requirement. Given the public discourse, you could be forgiven for believing that an open public school was as rare as a hen’s tooth. But at the start of the 2020-21 school year, about half of districts were open for in-person learning (though small districts were likelier than huge districts to be open). By the end of calendar year 2020, about half of students were either in full-time in-person schooling or a hybrid model. It was simply not the case that America’s schools were in total lockdown.

Options varied based on local preferences. A survey from January and February found that 89 percent of families wanting remote learning were getting it; 74 percent of families wanting in-person were getting it. Surveys continuously found that variables like geography, ideology, income, and race influenced views on reopening. At the start of the 2020-21 school year, rural school districts were dramatically more likely to open in-person (65 percent) than city school districts (9 percent). In January, nearly 3 in 4 urban districts were still remote. By March, 72 percent of rural districts were all in-person.

Republicans and Democrats have had very different views about the proper government response to reopening the nation, with Republicans much more worried about the costs of reopening too slowly and Democrats much more concerned about reopening too quickly. Not surprisingly then, heavily Republican areas were more likely to reopen schools than heavily Democratic areas, and Republicans were more likely to express a desire to return to in-person schooling. By early 2021, Republicans were still 32 percentage points likelier than Democrats to want an in-person option, and when given the opportunity for in-person learning, Republican families were more likely to choose it than Democratic families.

There has also been a racial dimension to parents’ views. In a July survey, black parents were 25 percentage points likelier than white parents to say returning was risky. A December report from the CDC found a similar racial gap. A survey found that among families given the option of in-person learning, white families were significantly more likely to choose it (76 percent) than black families (56 percent). This is corroborated by the experience in New York City and other districts where black families were disproportionately choosing to remain in online learning. In February, 80 percent of back adults said schools that weren’t open yet should stay closed until all teachers who want the vaccine have gotten it; only 51 percent of white respondents agreed.

There are many possible explanations for why race has mattered so much: underlying distrust in institutions, concerns about school safety, inadequate health care, the pandemic’s disproportionate costs on communities of color. There are also many possible reasons that rural and conservative parents were more willing to go back quickly—maybe their areas had fewer and/or less serious COVID cases, perhaps more jobs in these areas needed adults to be in-person not monitoring their students from home; maybe former President Donald Trump’s posture on the virus was influential; perhaps they were just naturally less risk-averse.

Regardless of the influence or validity of any particular explanation, people had a variety of views on the wisdom of returning to in-person schooling, and those views often varied by geography. Our hyper-local, democratically controlled system of schools is designed to capture and reflect geography-based differences.

Since it now appears that a significant part of the reopening story is about family preferences and the responsiveness of institutions, a word is needed about school choice. Private schools seem to have played an important role, offering in-person schooling to those who wanted it. Toward the end of 2020, while 24 percent of district-educated kids were attending in-person, it was 60 percent among private-school students. More than 80 percent of private-school families were satisfied with their schools’ instruction and activities.

Another outlet has been “pods” or “hubs”—primarily self-organized, very small education communities. A handful of students, with the supervision of one or more adults, engage in school-assigned work, supplemental lessons, or self-directed learning. The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) maintains a database of such organic associations. The variety is inspiring—learning environments sponsored by community nonprofits and business, local governments, and more. One survey found 6 percent of American families participating in some kind of pod; another survey found 14 percent—with another 18 percent expressing interest in starting or joining a pod. Lower-income students were more likely to participate than higher-income students.

This is not to say that private schools are always great for everyone, much less that pods are the certain wave of the future. The point is that the pandemic threw schooling for a loop, and the K-12 system responded as a whole in ways that suited most families. Many parents—indeed, more parents than you might have expected—were satisfied with remote learning and how their districts’ response to the crisis. Other families were glad to be in districts that went back to in-person swiftly. Others accessed non-district options. 

Our nation is made up of varied belief systems and political views, and our K-12 system’s foundation of local democracy and choice enabled more families to get something approximating their preferences than just about any other system imaginable.

Now that public opinion has turned a corner and people can see the pandemic finish line, we may see rapid growth in reopenings. It may be the case that pro-opening sentiment leads to more open schools, which then leads to more public confidence in the safety of open schools, which fuels pro-opening sentiment. By spring 2021, with vaccinations and quarantine-fatigue rising and a majority of Americans believing the worst of the pandemic is behind us, slightly more parents expressed comfort than discomfort with sending kids back in-person. According to the Return to Learn Tracker, by March 15, 91 percent of districts were either in-person or hybrid. Also in March, CRPE reported that 57 percent of districts were offering full-time in-person options, the highest percentage since the start of the pandemic. A late February survey found that 79 percent of parents now wanted districts to provide an in-person option. A small majority now want in-person for their own kids.

Nevertheless, differences remain. According to a new survey by the federal government, urban districts are still lagging behind other districts in the provision of fully in-person options. The rate of in-person attendance among black students is still 20 percentage points below white students. And small districts are more likely to be open for in-person schooling than large districts. Instead of seeing such differences as a function of our system’s dysfunction, we should have entertained the possibility that differences reflected the system’s responsiveness to local sentiment.

For the last year, it has been fashionable to attribute all sorts of bad motives to school systems, their leaders, and the advocacy groups influencing them. But the story hasn’t been politics, unions, laziness, risk-aversion, or ignorance. It’s been parents, pluralism, and self-government.

Andy Smarick is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.