Partisan perceptions of COVID-19 danger to school kids persisted through the pandemic — and are fueling back-to-school fights over school policies

The political conflicts over the authority to protect public health (or not) that have roiled the Texas political system since the earliest days of the pandemic are boiling over as school officials' efforts to protect children, teachers, and staff from a reinvigorated coronavirus now requires defying Gov. Abbott and his allies in all three branches of state government. Texans’ first days back at school this year have been marked with the usual avalanche of photos on social media, but with the added 2021 twists of the semiotics of whose kids are masked and whose aren't, a flurry of court action, and even a report of an angry parent ripping the mask off a teacher somewhere amidst the tony suburban campuses of the Eanes School district. The politics of the pandemic have transformed the normally happy back-to-school season into yet another venue for political combat.

Public opinion data from the first year of the pandemic illustrates that even when it comes to the safety of kids at school, there have been fundamental differences in how people view the threat posed by the coronavirus along partisan (and, relatedly, ideological), racial, and gender lines. While it’s old news that Democrats and Republicans see the coronavirus and the means of halting its spread differently, it’s not implausible to think that the divisions might be muted by the involvement of children (which we see to some extent in other areas of polarized public opinion). But those divisions are even more apparent when it comes to perceptions of the safety of sending children to school in the midst of the continuing spread of COVID-19.

Beginning in June of last year, as part of our ongoing tracking of Texas attitudes and behavior related to the pandemic, we’ve repeatedly asked Texans whether or not they believe, regardless of conditions in their local areas, it was safe or unsafe to engage in a variety of activities, including sending children to school.

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June 202035%65%
October 202045%55%
February 202155%45%
April 202163%37%
June 202174%26%

Over that time span, the share of Texans feeling that it was safe to send children to school increased from 35% in June of 2020 to 74% in June of 2021 — before the Delta variant of the coronavirus began filling up ICU beds across the state. Feelings of safety increased by approximately 10-points in each of four surveys conducted after the June 2020 poll, likely for a number of plausible reasons, including more knowledge about the coronavirus and its transmission, the relative dangers posed to children by the virus, the release of vaccines, the negative impact of prolonged online learning, and the eventual (and continuing) release of vaccines for children — which still haven’t been cleared for children under 12 as of this writing.

Despite this consistent pattern amidst the clearly changing environment, partisan divisions in opinion on the question of children’s safety remain evident. Back in June 2020, the 35% of Texans who thought it was safe to send their children to school was composed of a majority of Republicans, 58%, but only 9% of Democrats. 

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June 20209%35%58%
October 202014%45%73%
February 202131%55%77%
April 202143%63%85%
June 202159%74%90%

Since then, increasing shares of both groups have become more comfortable with the idea of sending children back to school, but the gap between the two parties remains. By October of 2020, Democrats hadn’t become significantly more confident in putting children in schools: only 14% said it was safe, a paltry 5-point increase, whereas among Republicans, the share saying it was safe increased 15-points to 73%. 

Considering the current conflicts, it’s worth pointing out that in October 2020, before vaccination and with limited data about the impact of remote education on learning, 3 in 4 Republican voters in Texas had already determined that it was safe to send children to school. This share continued to increase, reaching 90% in June 2021 polling, before the impact of the Delta variant had become widely acknowledged in the public health data. 

Among Democrats, the shares finding it safe to send children to school also increased, albeit more slowly and from a lower baseline. In February 2021, the share approximately doubled, from 14% in October to 31%, increasing another 12-points to 43% in April, and another 16-points to 59% in June of this year —  almost identical to the share of Republicans who thought the same last June.

Given the disproportionate toll the pandemic has taken on non-Anglo communities in Texas (and elsewhere), along with the relationship between race/ethnicity and partisanship, it’s no surprise that there are also pretty significant gaps on the safety question when looked at by race.

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June 202042%23%24%
October 202055%27%27%
February 202164%39%45%
April 202175%40%43%
June 202183%54%65%

In June 2020, 42% of white voters said it was safe to send children to school compared to 23% of Black and 24% of Hispanic voters. By October, confidence among white voters had increased by 13-points, compared to 4-point and 3-point increases among Black and Hispanic voters, respectively. As recently as April 2021, 75% of white, but only 40% of Black and 43% of Hispanic voters said it was safe to send children to school; in June, those shares increased to 83%, 54%, and 65%, respectively — marking the first time in the Texas polling data that a majority of either Black or Hispanic voters said they felt safe sending children to school. 

Again, this came just before the onset of the Delta variant and the seeming determination of Gov. Abbott and other Republican political leaders to mount what can fairly be described as determined resistance to allowing public schools (and as many other public venues as they have the means to pressure) to require mask wearing and, where possible, proof of vaccination. The next round of polling in this series will almost certainly reveal continuing differences along partisan and racial lines evident in the trend data prior to the surge created by the rise of the Delta variant and the puzzling (to put it mildly) resistance by Republican public officials to fight its spread by any effective means necessary. 

It seems very likely that there has been an uptick in safety concerns among groups that have been more concerned and cautious in the face of the pandemic since it began, based on the record we have of their reported attitudes and behaviors. 

But it is much more difficult to predict how much the abject lack of public health messaging from the state’s Republican political leadership has encouraged their partisans to adopt the same blithe attitudes toward taking the measures necessary to protect the health of children and other unvaccinated Texans (including many of these same partisans) in the short run, and to bring the virus under control in the long run. Among a large share of partisan Texans, public opinion and political leadership have thus far been mutually reinforcing factors in perpetuating the public health threat posed by a potent virus that, so far, has been better at self-preservation than many of the allegedly more evolved humans it is so effectively afflicting. 

We’ll wait on new data to draw conclusions. But in the meantime, the clashes between the statewide policies toward public schools and the pushback against schools choosing to follow public health guidelines instead of state level displays of authority — and between parents and school personnel taking sides in these fights — suggest the data won’t bear any good news. In the meantime, the current policies emanating from the state, in the short run, at least, make Texas school children the canaries in the coal mine, providing another example of how the state’s leadership seems driven to test the limits of political conventions and cultural norms — not to mention ethics.

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