Tuesday, May 11, 2021
May 11, 2021

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Politics, race were key factors in when Washington schools reopened for in-person learning during pandemic

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Washington school districts that primarily serve white children, and districts in counties where a majority voted for Donald Trump last year, reopened to more students sooner than more liberal leaning or racially diverse communities.

That’s one of the findings of a Seattle Times analysis, which shows that for all grade levels — elementary, middle and high schools — politics and a district’s racial makeup were significant indicators of how many students came back to classrooms in the months before Gov. Jay Inslee issued an order to reopen school buildings. The Times’ analysis also found that counties with the highest COVID-19 death rates had a higher average proportion of students in classrooms than the rest of the state, suggesting that health indicators didn’t always drive decisions.

The analysis aligns with national research and illustrates how differently pandemic learning played out across the state. Catching kids up to the learning they missed may play out differently, too, experts said. Washington was split down its geographic middle: in Eastern and central districts, which opened in-person earlier, students may return to grade-level learning more quickly, while children in Western Washington schools and urban districts, which took longer to reopen, may need more academic support.

Monday marks the deadline Inslee set in March for all schools to offer in-person learning for any student who wants it.

Before Inslee issued his March order, about 79% of elementary school students were learning in person in counties where Trump earned at least half of the vote. In counties where Trump didn’t prevail, just 45% of elementary students were learning in schools.

The difference was more stark for older grades: almost 70% of high school students in Trump-leaning areas were present at schools, but only 20% from liberal-leaning areas were learning in person.

There is no data yet on how Washington children fared academically during the pandemic. Although remote learning was a struggle for many, some children from families with more resources had private tutors or other support to keep them on track.

A new study on learning loss found even a few weeks away from school affects students’ academics. In a top scientific journal, researchers found that eight weeks of remote learning “amounted to little or no progress” among a large sample of students in the Netherlands. Even in the best-case scenario — only two months of remote learning, where internet access is ubiquitous and school funding is equitable — students lost out on the learning equivalent of one-fifth of the school year; for children whose parents have lower levels of education, they found, “the learning slide is up to 60% larger.”

Some of Washington’s largest districts were away from classrooms for more than a year. “For most kids it seems like online education didn’t work very well,” said Dan Goldhaber, a University of Washington education researcher who reviewed The Seattle Times data. “These results would suggest that we might expect differential learning loss across different kinds of school districts.”

The Seattle Times’ findings largely fit with national research from October and April which found that county-level support for Trump — not COVID-19 case counts — determined school reopening decisions. Both the Washington and national results, experts say, suggest that polarized national debates, and in particular, an early push by Trump to reopen schools, tipped the balance from a technocratic decision to one made on the basis of partisan politics.

The Times analysis also revealed that, by early March, nine of the top ten counties with the highest number of COVID-19 deaths per capita were teaching at least 75% of students in classrooms. Garfield County, which has maintained the highest COVID-19 death rate since December, also had the largest proportion of students in the classroom by the beginning of March — 99% of its more than 300 enrolled students. Research has suggested that case rates in schools mirror those in the community, and schools can help drive spread when COVID-19 is rampant in the community.

Trump stoked partisan flames last spring and summer with tweets calling for schools to reopen as cases and deaths from the virus began to soar across the country. Alarm over Trump’s remarks is thought to have reinforced concerns about returning to the classroom among educators.

Trump’s push “had the ability to nationalize what really is a local public health issue,” said Michael Hartney, assistant professor of political science at Boston College, who co-led the October research. “It challenges best practices around leadership.”

In King County — where Trump received the lowest percentage of votes — big school districts such as Seattle, Northshore and Federal Way each had less than 1% of their students learning in person by the beginning of March.

By contrast, in Lincoln County, where almost three out of four votes were cast for Trump — his highest margin across the state — at least 85% of students were learning in classrooms in all its eight school districts. In three of them, Almira, Harrington and Oddessa, the number was 100%.

“Trump voters don’t think the pandemic was that big of a deal,” said Goldhaber. “If you don’t believe COVID is as serious as an issue, then you’re sort of inclined to think schools should be operating normally.”

On the ground, some school district leaders say they tried to separate their decisions from politics.

Clarkston schools — located on the Idaho border in Asotin County, where of votes went to Trump last year — was one of the first Washington school districts to reopen using a hybrid schedule this school year. At the time, the district was “the envy of the region,” its superintendent Thaynan Knowlton said. Ever since, pressure to reopen full-time has come from both partisan and nonpartisan groups, including physicians concerned about children’s mental health.

The Yakima School District chose a cautious approach to reopening, and “our conservative radio was second-guessing every step we’d make,” said Trevor Greene, the district’s superintendent.

As neighboring school systems brought their kids back in the fall, the 80%-Latino district waited until last month before it began a broader reopening. By the first week of March, Greene’s district — the largest in Yakima County — had the lowest percentage of students who had returned to classrooms, at 38%, compared to the smaller districts that surround it.

Now, the district is examining local COVID-19 case counts down to the Zip code level to decide whether to transition from hybrid to full-time in-person learning. Smaller districts in the county, which has the second highest death rate per capita tied to coronavirus after Garfield County, have already made the move after the CDC announced new, less stringent distancing guidelines for schools.

Many families have sent Greene letters commending him for his restraint before advancing reopening plans, but he’s also received backlash.

“I can’t understand the school district’s thinking on this other than being a political issue,” one person wrote to Greene on March 29.” … My suggestion to you is lead, or get the hell out of the way so that our kids can get an education.”

The Times’ results don’t surprise Washington’s top education official, Chris Reykdal. Washington’s education department publishes a weekly school reopening database on its website, which shows how many students are learning in-person. (The Seattle Times used this, statewide voting data and student demographic information to analyze school reopenings in the state.)

“Obviously you don’t want this to be a political decision, you want this to be based on the science,” Reykdal said.

Washington is receiving an estimated $2.6 billion from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to help districts catch students up, but federal rules require that a majority of those funds be split up based on a district’s concentration of low-income students — not based on whether they were mostly remote this school year.

“It may be that some districts are getting a lot of resources by their underlying demographics but they made a decision to be more in-person through the year,” Reykdal said, suggesting that if a district returned to in-person learning early, the effects of pandemic learning on students wouldn’t be as great.

But education finance expert and Georgetown University professor Marguerite Roza said awarding school districts funds based on how long they were remote is a risky proposition.

The needs may be higher among districts that stayed remote longer, said Roza. But “they also maybe have cash on hand [from operating remotely]. And if you give them more money for it, the districts that took risk to their community to open would say, ‘You’re punishing us.’”

A better option, she said: factoring in poverty, but also offering relief dollars across the board.

The Seattle Times also found differences based on racial composition. At the beginning of March, for high schools with mostly white students, 66% of pupils showed up for in-person learning. By contrast, about 43% of students from districts that primarily serve students of color showed up.

Why this divide exists is tough to untangle.

That might be explained by differences in community desires, said Bree Dusseault, practitioner-in-residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a center at the University of Washington, Bothell, and a former charter school leader.

Families of color may be reluctant to return to an education system that’s historically struggled to serve their children well — especially at a time when Black, Native and other communities of color are hard hit by the coronavirus, she said.

“If you trust the system and the system says, ‘Hey, it’s safe to come back,’ you are going to be more likely to see that as an option,” Dusseault said. “And if you haven’t trusted the system then you’re not going to be as likely to want to send your student back.”

At least one national database on attitudes during the pandemic, the Understanding America Study, offers some insight.

This month, a study of the survey from University of Arkansas researchers found that a combination of factors — politics, local COVID-19 case rates and school policies — seemed to drive racial differences in in-person attendance. A recent analysis of the same survey results found that the “strongest predictor of whether parents are willing to send their children back turns out to be whether their own school is open,” suggesting that having the option to return might be a cause, not a consequence, of disagreement between racial groups.

Hartney, the Boston College researcher, said the strength of local teachers unions also played a role — including in Washington, where he and his colleagues analyzed ‘union strength’ and its relationship with reopening decisions. The team defined a strong union as one where at least 50% of its members pay toward their union’s political action committee — and found that in Washington, areas with stronger unions were “18 percentage points more likely to use remote schooling and 5 percentage points less likely to reopen in person.”

The statewide teachers union, the Washington Education Association, declined to comment.

Union strength coincides, to some degree, with whether an area leans liberal, Hartney said. “But I wouldn’t take that too far. Teachers unions can be fairly strong in Republican-leaning areas too.”

The number of low-income students in a district was also positively associated with more in-person learning, The Times found. This association, however, was weaker than the other findings.

The Times also looked for other associations with in-person learning, such as the percentage of students whose first language is not English, those with disabilities or are homeless, among others. None of these factors were significant.

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