Are teachers unions influencing virtual schooling more than pandemic science?

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School districts across the country made difficult decisions this fall about whether to educate students in person or through virtual learning. However, our new study suggests that the presence of a teachers union was more of a deciding factor for Wisconsin school districts choosing to direct their classes virtually — not the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic in that community — and this is consistent with national research.   

These results should not be surprising in light of the fact that teachers unions have been a loud voice against opening schools throughout the pandemic. In August, hundreds of New York City teachers union members marched with mock coffins to protest the city’s reopening plan. That same month, a caravan of Wisconsin teachers, parents and students traveled from all over the state to Madison, holding signs with messages such as “One student or teacher funeral is too many.” Similar marches were held in Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix and other cities.   

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty study examined the initial reopening decisions of 415 of the 422 school districts in Wisconsin. Thirty-six school districts, or roughly 9 percent, started the school year fully virtual. Approximately 81 percent of those districts had a teachers union, compared with slightly less than 50 percent of all districts in the state. And these numbers aren’t simply correlational — after the inclusion of a host of control variables, the findings still hold.   

Did the political bent of a community have to do with the decisions? It seems like it. School districts in Wisconsin communities with a higher percentage of votes for President Trump in both 2016 and 2020 were more likely to open than schools in those with a higher percentage of votes for Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.    

In national studies as well, unions have proven to be a driving factor for shuttering schools. According to a study released in September by Cory DeAngeles and Christopher Makridis, districts across the country with stronger teachers unions were less likely to open in person. For example, in states without right-to-work laws, they found that school districts were 14 percentage points less likely to open than in states with those laws in place.   

While it was understandable that schools took a cautious approach when the virus arrived in the U.S. last spring, the data increasingly suggest that in-person learning is not a driver of the pandemic. A study of more than 200,000 kids across 47 states revealed low infection rates among students and teachers.  The reality is that kids, for whatever reason, apparently don’t spread COVID-19 like adults do.     

Further, keeping kids out of school for what is approaching a full year will have long-term implications for the children who forever may be trying to make up for lost time. According to an Educational Researcher study released in October, students this fall were projected to begin the school year with only “63 to 68 percent of the learning gains in reading and 37 to 50 percent of the learning gains in mathematics, relative to a typical school year.”  This learning loss is harmful to both students and society, potentially resulting in diminished opportunities and real GDP consequences.      

Being out of school also can affect children’s mental and emotional health. Guidance released from the American Academy of Pediatrics in June advocates for students to meet in person this fall, because of not just schools’ academic role in students’ lives but also their social and emotional role. The letter cited schools as a place where students receive “social and emotional skills,” “physical/speech and mental health therapy,” as well as “safety,” to name a few.   

For months, every measure taken to combat COVID-19 has been done with an emphasis on “trusting the science.” But the science is increasingly indicating that in-person learning, on balance, is relatively safe and that the risks are far outweighed by the importance to children and families. Education is fundamental for all children, and if political ideology and teachers unions are the deciding factors for whether a district will meet in person or not — not the science and the evidence — then it seems that districts across the country may have their priorities a bit backwards.   

Will Flanders, Ph.D., is the research director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. Follow him on Twitter @WillFlandersWI.

Tags coronavirus pandemic Donald Trump Education Hillary Clinton Joe Biden teachers unions virtual learning

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