Unions, politics play bigger role in reopening than COVID, study finds

Districts with stronger unions were less likely to offer in-person instruction in fall 2020, researcher says
By: | March 30, 2021
In a study of the 250 large urban school districts, the rate of local COVID hospitalizations had almost no relation to whether classrooms were open for in-person learning, a researcher says.In a study of the 250 large urban school districts, the rate of local COVID hospitalizations had almost no relation to whether classrooms were open for in-person learning, a researcher says.

The strength of local teacher’s unions, the percentage of Trump voters, and demographics—not the severity of COVID outbreaks—appear to be driving school reopening decisions in many parts of the country.

In a study of the 250 largest urban school districts, the rate of local COVID hospitalizations had almost no relation to whether classrooms were open for in-person learning, says Bradley D. Marianno, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“At a local level, teacher’s unions are the largest and most organized education group and they’re directly connected to the supply of teachers in the classroom,” Marianno says. “They have an unmatched influence in local decisions.”

This school year, many of the reopening decisions are being made locally—a sharp contrast to spring 2020, when governors order schools shut throughout their states, Marianno points out.


More on teacher’s unions: Should you use stimulus funds to increase teacher pay?


Politically, Democratic voters may have overestimated the risks of COVID spreading in schools while Republican voters may have underestimated the dangers, Marianno suggested.

Still, most research has indicated COVID is not spreading in schools where students and staff are wearing masks, social distancing and taking other safety precautions, he points out.

This has led some parents and other stakeholders to accuse unions of slowing down reopenings, particularly where there is greater concerns that distance learning is causing students to fall behind.

In his research, Marianno reached three major conclusions:

  • Districts with stronger unions were less likely to offer in-person instruction in fall 2020
  • Districts in counties with higher percentages of Trump voters were more likely to be open for in-person instruction
  • Districts with more white students were more likely to be open

“You would hope that in local decision-making, we are responding to community needs and not necessarily the voices of the most powerful actors,” Marianno says. “If we’re responding to community needs, we would see stronger correlations with pandemic severity than with teacher union strength.”

The American Federation of Teachers recently raised concerns when the Centers for Disease Control said studies had indicated three feet of social distancing was sufficient between students in classrooms.

AFT leadership faulted the CDC’s research for not identifying the other strategies needed to make 3 feet of physical distancing safe.

“Moreover, [the studies] were not conducted in our nation’s highest-density and least-resourced schools, which have poor ventilation, crowding and other structural challenges,” AFT President Randi Weingarten wrote in a letter to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “We are not convinced that the evidence supports changing physical distancing requirements at this time.”