The Politics of Re-Opening Schools: Explaining Public Preferences Reopening Schools and Public Compliance with Reopening Orders During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2023, Vol. 51(2) 223234
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X221135521
The Politics of Re-Opening Schools: Explaining
Public Preferences Reopening Schools and
Public Compliance with Reopening Orders
During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Jonathan E Collins
Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the decision to reopen schools for in-person instruction has become a pressing policy issue.
This study examines what overall factors drive public support for schools re-opening in person and whether members of the
public are willing to comply with school re-opening decisions based on their own preferences and/or the level of government
from which the order comes. Through two rounds of national surveys with an embedded experiment, I f‌ind consistent evidence
that 1) trust in information from elites - not contact with COVID - best explain preferences for reopening, 2) political ideology
and racial and class identif‌ication help explain preferences as well, and 3) the President of the United States is best positioned to
generate compliance with a school reopening mandate. This study suggests that politics - not public health - drives public
support for schools reopening and compliance with government orders to reopen.
COVID-19, school reopening, public preferences
What factors determine public preferences for schools re-
opening in the midst the COVID-19 pandemic? Are people
forming preferences based on public health information,
social identity, their politics, or a combination of all three? In
addition to forming preferences, are people willing to comply
with government mandates to reopen schools? To the extent
that they are, what are the factors that best determine who is
willing to comply versus who is not? These are pressing
questions that emerge in through the continued existence of
the COVID-19 public health pandemic. Moreover, these are
the questions that I will address in this paper.
As the COVID-19 spread rapidly during the early months
of 2020, state and local government leaders largely moved at
rapid speeds to close school facilities around the United
States for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic school
However, the question of reopening for 2020-21 be-
came far more complicated. While most states did mandate
that schools reopen, they varied in the fabric of their
guidelines for aspects such as: scheduling, facility require-
ments, and opt-out plans for individual parents and students
(Grossmann et al., 2021). Meanwhile, some states broke from
the central guidelines structure and appropriated decision-
making control to local districts. As state and districts
scrambled, the President and the Department of Education
sent out strong messages in favor of schools reopening with
limited federal resources to support the process.
The intergovernmental confusion around the school re-
opening process provides a challenge for public schooling
and for democratic accountability (Manna, 2006;Wong,
2008;Cohen & Moff‌itt, 2010;Henig, 2013). In terms of
public schooling, the pandemic raises questions as to who is
responsible for COVID-19-related decision-making and
implementing special protocol. Meanwhile, the account-
ability issue raises questions as to whether public concerns
are being heard and met. These issues forge together to create
questions around the larger issue of public compliance. If the
public senses uncertainty from policymakers and/or believe
that policymakers dont have their best interest at heart, there
could be incentive to avoid complying with mandates. During
a massive public health crisis, non-compliance, when the
right policy is in place, is a proverbial highway for further
This paper examines public preferences towards reopen-
ing schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. I uncover the
factors that best predict support for reopening schools. I then
move to examine the issue of public compliance with orders
Brown University, Providence, RI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jonathan E Collins, Brown University, Box 1938, Providence, RI, USA.

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