American Views on COVID-19 Health Risks, School and Economy Reopening

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(The RAND Blog)

Shoppers carry purchases at the King of Prussia Mall, in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, December 8, 2018, photo by Mark Makela/Reuters

Shoppers carry purchases at the King of Prussia Mall, in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, December 8, 2018

Photo by Mark Makela/Reuters

In March 2020, in an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 and save lives, stay-at-home orders were issued across the country and schools and businesses were forced to close their doors in response. Difficult and often contentious decisions have been made about the reopening of schools and businesses. As it's highly unlikely that COVID-19 will be completely eradicated, it is important to understand those contentions and what factors, such as varying COVID-19 experiences and demographic characteristics, may be related to different attitudes among the American public. These differences and trends over time can inform a path forward.

From February to March 2021, the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation surveyed a nationally representative sample of 4,143 individuals with household incomes under $125,000 to better understand American health mindsets and COVID-19 experiences, including attitudes about school and economy reopenings. This was the third in a series of four surveys to be conducted, in part through the RAND American Life Panel, with one more to be conducted in summer 2021.

The panel was designed to emphasize populations historically at greater risk as they face the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recession, and social injustice. Fifty percent of respondents identified themselves as nonwhite, and 45 percent reported an annual household income of less than $50,000.

In this third, most recent survey, respondents were asked if it was worth increasing the risk of new COVID-19 infections and deaths for in-person learning or reopening the economy. Responses for the two questions were very similar. (See Figure 1.) Slightly more people felt that opening schools for in-person learning was worth increasing the risk (33 percent either strongly or somewhat agreed) than those who felt that opening the economy was worth increasing the risk (30 percent either strongly or somewhat agree).

Figure 1: Percent Agreeing or Disagreeing That Opening Is Worth Increased Risk of COVID-19

Strongly agree Somewhat agree Neither agree nor disagree Somewhat disagree Strongly disagree
Education Wave 3 15.8 17.3 19.6 19.8 27
Economy Wave 3 14.2 15.9 18.1 21.8 29.5

Source: Experiences of Populations at Greater Risk Survey

Views across these two questions tend to be aligned. Over 90 percent of respondents give the same answer to both questions: They strongly agree.

Support for opening schools for in-person learning is higher among non-Hispanic white respondents than among those of other races or ethnic groups. (See Figure 2.) Over 40 percent of non-Hispanic white respondents support in-person learning despite the greater risk of the spread of COVID-19, while that sentiment is shared by less than 30 percent of other groups. Only 14 percent of Black respondents support opening schools for in-person learning. Results are similar for reopening the economy.

Figure 2: Percent by Race and Ethnicity Who “Strongly” or “Somewhat Agree” It's Worth the Risk to Open Schools

Schools Economy
Non-Hispanic white 41.5 37.1
Non-Hispanic Black 14.2 12.2
Hispanic 23.1 23.9
Non-Hispanic Asian/PI 23.7 21.1
Non-Hispanic other 29.7 26

Source: Experiences of Populations at Greater Risk Survey

The question about the trade-off between the risk of COVID-19 and reopening the economy has been asked three times to our respondents—in June 2020, October 2020, and February 2021. (The question about opening schools for in-person education has only been asked once.) In each subsequent survey, an increase was evident in the number of people who strongly agree that it is worth the risk to reopen the economy. A significant decline in the percent who strongly disagree can also be seen. While it isn't known what is driving this change, it may be due to changes in knowledge about COVID-19 risks and how to prevent the spread; optimism related to vaccine availability; pandemic fatigue; or other factors.

Figure 3: Changes in Support for Reopening the Economy Over Time

Economy Strongly agree Somewhat agree Neither agree nor disagree Somewhat disagree Strongly disagree
Summer 2020 10.9 14.1 14.6 22.6 37.4
Fall 2020 12.3 16.3 16.9 21.8 32
Winter 2021 14.2 15.9 18.1 21.8 29.5

Source: Experiences of Populations at Greater Risk Survey

However, not all groups are increasing in their willingness to open the economy. While non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics show growing support for reopening the economy, support among non-Hispanic Black respondents remains low.

Figure 4: Support for Opening the Economy Over Time by Race and Ethnicity

Non-Hispanic white Non-Hispanic Black Hispanic
Summer 2020 33 13.54 20.2
Fall 2020 36.66 15.19 19.94
Winter 2021 38.89 12.47 27.78

Source: Experiences of Populations at Greater Risk Survey

Groups that have been disproportionately impacted (namely communities of color) are the most concerned about the greater health risks they may face from COVID-19.

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Overall, the survey results suggest there is some growing support for reopening the economy (and likely schools), including among populations at greater risk. But some of those groups, particularly non-Hispanic Black respondents, still remain wary of the increased risks. While much of the discussion about opening schools and the economy has focused on the disparate impact that being closed has on the most vulnerable groups (e.g., worsening educational inequities), in this survey sample, groups that have been disproportionately impacted (namely communities of color) are the most concerned about the greater health risks they may face from COVID-19. In the case of schools in particular, if by opening schools to in-person learning policymakers hope to address inequities in learning that may have been exacerbated over the past year due to distance learning, they might need to get more support from families at greater risk and address concerns about adequate protections.


Katherine Carman is a senior economist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, the director of the RAND Center for Financial and Economic Decision Making, and a professor in the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Anita Chandra is vice president and director of RAND Social and Economic Well-Being. Laurie Martin is a senior policy researcher at RAND.

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.