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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

New Polling Shows the K-12 COVID Fights Aren’t Going Anywhere

By Rick Hess — September 13, 2021 4 min read
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For over a year, schools have been caught up in heated debates over closure, remote learning, social distancing, and masking. While many educators and parents hoped that things would settle down once vaccines were widely available, vaccine hesitancy and the surge of the Delta variant have combined to ensure that COVID-inspired divisions aren’t going anywhere. Indeed, as the recent release of the annual Education Next poll makes clear, they’re increasingly enmeshed with our polarized politics. (Full disclosure: I’m an executive editor at Education Next.)

Ed Next’s annual survey asked nationally representative samples of more than 1,400 general public respondents and over 2,000 parents about a range of issues. When it comes to COVID-19, those who work in and around schools should take particular note of three findings.

First, the COVID-inspired battles in schools are going to be with us even after the FDA approves vaccines for younger kids. Why? Because lots of parents aren’t going to get their kids vaccinated. A third say they won’t, and just half say they probably or definitely will. Unless those numbers change a lot, almost every school or system is going to have a significant number of families who don’t want to vaccinate their kids. That means it’ll likely be challenging to make vaccination a condition of attendance.

Clashes over vaccination in K-6 settings are sure to have big implications for how schools operate amidst the COVID culture war. Once all schoolkids are vaccine-eligible, some educators (especially those with health complications) may argue that they shouldn’t be asked to teach in classrooms with unvaccinated students. Some parents may want schools to have their vaccinated children only in classrooms with vaccinated peers. Vaccine efficacy may render such demands superfluous, but we’re at a point where they’re motivated by much more than actuarial determinations of risk. Meanwhile, it’s a sure bet that vaccine mandates will breed legal challenges and backlash—making it hard to see how we get to a place where schools can treat COVID vaccination like they do that for measles, chicken pox, or hepatitis B.

Second, as long as millions of students remain unvaccinated, many communities will continue to face partisan pushback no matter what masking and social-distancing rules they come up with. After all, while the public is broadly split over K-12 mask mandates (with 44 percent in favor and 36 percent opposed), the red-blue divide gets astonishing. Republicans oppose mask mandates 61 percent to 21 percent while Democrats support them 64 percent to 16 percent. As to whether schools should require social distancing this fall: Republicans are opposed by 66 percent to 16 percent, whereas Democrats support it by 42 percent to 22 percent.

These rifts make clear that we’ve come to a place where the disputes are about much more than mundane disagreements over trade-offs and how to interpret the research. For educators, I suspect this means that politicized fights over mitigation strategies, fueled by those for whom these measures have an outsized symbolic import, will continue to pose challenges for those more inclined to pursue pragmatic, context-driven responses.

Third, offering remote learning as an alternative to in-person schooling won’t bring any respite from the divides. Forty-one percent of the public supports providing elementary students a remote-learning option while 39 percent is opposed. Republicans are against a remote option by 47 percent to 33 percent while Democrats are for one by 49 percent to 33 percent. There’s more support for remote learning for high schoolers, but the basic split remains the same. This means that educators can expect to be caught between those who think a remote option is appropriate, even essential, and those who see it as an indication that school officials aren’t really committed to full-time, in-person learning.

All this makes it pretty clear that the availability of FDA-approved vaccines for kids isn’t going to let us turn the page on the COVID fights that have consumed schools over the past year. Unless something unexpected happens, the partisan fights will be with us for a good while yet.

Tensions are going to be especially high in locales where both Republicans and Democrats hold the levers of power. The flashpoints to watch will be blue cities in red states, where Democratic mayors and school boards are likely to clash with Republican governors and legislatures. It’s a safe bet that frustrated mayors and school boards are likely to turn to the courts, as we’ve seen them do in recent weeks. Meanwhile, blue communities in red states will continue to work with the Biden administration to try to overrule state officials.

One likely consequence of the ongoing COVID fights is that heightened interest in school choice and home schooling will continue as parents seek school environments that respect and reflect their concerns. I’ll be curious to see if substantial numbers of pro-mask Democratic parents find themselves in schools where masks are optional, and start opting for home schooling, for remote learning, or for other choice environments where masks are mandatory. And, once the FDA approves vaccination for the 5-to-11 set, substantial numbers of vaccinated teachers and parents with vaccinated children could start seeking out schools where vaccination is required.

Teachers, administrators, and school boards will continue to be squeezed between two angry, distrustful camps, making it that much tougher for educators seeking to help tens of millions of students recover from a year of disruption and dislocation. None of this is comforting or reassuring. But it is always better, I think, to proceed with a sense of the road ahead.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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