The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity to examine how local governments respond to a public health crisis amid high levels of partisan polarization and an increasing tendency for local issues to become nationalized. As an arena that has, in recent years, been relatively separate from national partisan divides, public schools provide a useful window into these dynamics. Leveraging the fact that all of the nation’s school districts had to adopt a reopening plan for the fall, we test what factors best predict whether a district chose to return students to the classroom or educate them remotely. Contrary to the conventional understanding of school districts as localized and non-partisan actors, we find evidence that politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making. Mass partisanship and teacher union strength best explain how school boards approached reopening. Additionally, we find evidence that districts are sensitive to the threat of private school exit. Districts located in counties with a larger number of Catholic schools were less likely to shut down and more likely to return to in-person learning. These findings have important implications for our understanding of education policy and the functioning of American local governments.