Political identity continues to shape how parents perceive pandemic-related school closures four years later, according to a new Deseret News poll.

Republican and independent voters are much more likely than their Democratic counterparts to say the cancellation of in-person classes during COVID-19 negatively impacted them personally. The gap is even wider — by a margin of more than 30 percentage points — when asked whether school closures hurt or helped their children, the poll found.

“The entire response to the pandemic was polarized like this,” Nat Malkus, the deputy director of education policy studies at AEI, told the Deseret News. But the polarization didn’t stop when the public health emergency was declared over last May. “The same partisan valence” still colors discussions of the pandemic today even as students face a crisis of learning loss and chronic absenteeism, Malkus said.

As evidence grows of long-term damage to students’ education, observers disagree over what could have been done differently. But most share the same concern that America might be too divided to learn from its COVID-19 mistakes as they relate to the country’s youngest residents.

What do Americans think of pandemic school closures?

The Deseret News/HarrisX poll revealed that 50% of American adults with young children believe school closures hurt their kids more than they helped. Less than a third (31%) of registered voters with children in the household said the policy helped their children more than it hurt them. One-fifth (19%) of respondents said their children were not impacted one way or the other, according to the poll.

But overall percentages mask the unpopularity of COVID-19 school closures among certain political demographics. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans (63%) and independents (64%) thought school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic were more harmful than helpful, compared to just 34% of Democrats. Half of Democrats said the closures helped their children more than hurt them.

The disparity between Democrats and the rest of registered voters is even larger when considering only those who said their children were impacted by the closures. Excluding respondents who said school closures did not impact their children, the percentage of Republicans (81%) and independents (78%) who said school shutdown policies hurt their children was more than double that of Democrats (40%).

The pattern repeated itself across all respondents when they were asked to indicate how COVID-19 school closures affected them personally. The poll was conducted among 1,010 U.S. registered voters between March 25-26 and has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percentage points

Nearly half (46%) of all Republican respondents said school closures had some or a strong negative impact on their life, compared to 28% of Democrats and 38% of independents, according to the poll. When considering just those who said that school closure did affect them, the percentage of Republicans who said the impact was negative jumped to 77%, followed by independents at 65% and Democrats at 49%.

Why are Americans so divided on pandemic school closures?

“Partisan identity is almost certainly dictating a substantial part of the answers to those questions,“ Malkus said.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted preexisting political fault lines, Malkus said, with individuals taking very different positions depending on quasi-tribal party affiliations.

“There were two very polarized ideas of what were common sense precautions to take during the pandemic,” Malkus said. “It was very cautious in blue areas and much more risk-tolerant in red areas. And school closures were just a glaringly obvious representation of that divide.”

Pandemic policies for K-12 education varied greatly by location largely as a result of political factors, Malkus said. His research found that after the initial wave of school closures, beginning with Ohio’s March 12 statewide shutdown, heavily Democratic areas were much more likely “to be closed and to be closed longer than average.”

Republican majority states like Utah, Florida and Texas had largely reopened their schools by the fall of 2020. School districts in places like Oregon, Washington and California were still only partially available for in-person attendance by the summer of 2021, according to Ballotpedia.

A recent review of pandemic-era policies by The New York Times found that “there is broad acknowledgment among many public health and education experts that extended school closures did not significantly stop the spread of Covid, while the academic harms for children have been large and long-lasting.”

Students at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in South Salt Lake wear masks as the get on a bus to go home after their first day of school on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. | " "

What was the effect of pandemic school closures on students?

As the data detailing the detrimental effects of school closures has become overwhelming, it has also become clear — if it wasn’t already in 2020 or 2021 — that shuttering schools “did far, far more damage to children than COVID could ever have done,” according to Joe Nocera, author of the “The Big Fail: What The Pandemic Revealed About Who America Protects and Who It Leaves Behind.”

“Closing schools was insane,” Nocera told the Deseret News. “This is something that is not obvious in the beginning. But it actually becomes clearer and clearer as time goes on and it becomes clearer and clearer that the reasons for closing schools are not good reasons.”

Nocera, who described himself as a “left-leaning independent,” said the extent of school shutdowns may have been based on poor, or misleading, communication from public health officials about the “enormous difference between a person 80 getting COVID and a person 5 years-old getting COVID.”

Whatever the reasons, the results have been negative. At its height in 2022, students across the country were more than half a year behind in math and a third of a year behind in reading. Students were even more behind, by a “significant margin in districts that were closed longer,” Malkus said.

Recovery is possible. In 2023, students closed the gap by “about a third,” Malkus said. But, he added, the remaining learning deficiency will be more difficult to bridge — and could be impossible for many students with the unprecedented levels of “chronic absenteeism.”

Defined as the percentage of students absent for at least 10% of a school year, chronic absenteeism has rocketed post-pandemic, nearly doubling from 15% of K-12 students nationwide to 28%. According to a database Malkus helped to develop, chronic absenteeism after the pandemic doubled from 14% to 22% in Utah’s Alpine School District, from 11% to 22% in the Davis District and from 14% to 33% in the Granite District.

The increase could have to do with the breakdown of school habits during the pandemic, Malkus said. But if something is not done quickly, a generation of school children will face serious setbacks.

“If you check out of school, you are going to put yourself under some damage for future opportunities, and we’re facing that at a large scale right now,” Malkus said. “Oftentimes, we don’t see the urgency in that catch-up effort that we need to.”

Malkus said policies that need to be implemented at a wide scale, and enforced by parents, include publicly provided tutoring and additional time added to the school year.

When it comes to COVID, hindsight is 20/20

Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of the School Superintendents Association, said educators of course recognize the consequences of COVID-19 school closures — they deal with them every day. She defends teachers and school administrators as experts in their field who did their best during COVID-19 to take into account the well-being of students, teachers and the local economy.

“I think schools made the best decision they could with the information they had at the time,” Ellerson Ng said.

It is easy to “Monday morning quarterback,” Ellerson Ng said, but it is less easy to judge the decisions of school districts with the context of what was known at the time and the worry administrators had that ending COVID-19 restrictions too early could lead to increased deaths.

The politicization of a harmful disease like COVID-19 was the unfortunate result of social media spreading misinformation and political figures capitalizing on people’s fears of pandemic disruption, Ellerson Ng said. The centrality of schools to COVID controversy led many community members to doubt the expertise of “local education leaders” and to direct “a disproportionate amount of ire and frustration” toward teachers, Ellerson Ng said.

“As COVID evolved, and there was general increasing hesitancy to look at CDC guidance, or to treat COVID for what it was, or to have a willingness to wear masks, or let schools be closed, it became a lightning rod issue, a divisive conversation, instead of, ‘Let’s let our local education leaders, who are the experts in running schools, give us recommendations on what would be fair and appropriate,’” Ellerson Ng said.

The exact point when it should have been obvious for schools to fully open — or not close at all — depends on who you ask, Malkus said. But by fall 2021 it was clear school closures did not stop the spread of COVID-19, and that the little they did do “didn’t seem to be at all worth it.”

The lesson, according to Malkus, couldn’t be clearer: “Closing schools needs to be a last resort and they should be reopened as soon as practicable.”

But a national accounting over how COVID-19 responses harmed children is unlikely, Malkus said — it would just devolve into the same partisan blame-game that occurred during COVID-19 which “could actually be distracting from the current situation.”

He concluded: “And so to that degree, I would want to make sure that people are focused on what we need to do now, and not what we shouldn’t have done two years ago.”