School reopenings closely linked to teachers’ union power—not safety concerns

On October 1st, 2020, the St. Paul Federation of Educators voiced resistance to the district’s efforts to transition the school year to in-person instruction. St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard stated he was “disappointed” that the teachers’ union leadership “is in opposition to the return of our students to the classroom,” adding that “our families are demanding” the district move from the current distance learning-only model to a hybrid model.

Teachers’ unions across the country have been fighting tooth and nail to keep schools from reopening in the name of safety, despite research that continued school closures worsen a public health crisis and exacerbate the academic disparities unions claim to want to prevent.

In fact, a study by Corey DeAngelis and Christos Makridis suggests that reopening decisions are driven more by teachers’ union influence than actual safety concerns.

Using data on the reopening decisions of 835 public school districts in the United States, we find that school districts in locations with stronger teachers’ unions are less likely to reopen in person…when full-time in-person instruction is available as an option to all students. … We also do not find evidence to suggest that measures of COVID-19 risk are correlated with school reopening decisions.

Our fully specified model finds that school districts in states without right-to-work laws are 14 percentage points less likely to reopen with full-time in-person instruction than school districts in states with right-to-work laws. A 10 percent increase in union power as measured by the Fordham Institute’s ranking of states is associated with a 1.3 percentage point lower probability of reopening in person, and a one percentage point increase in union membership at the state level is associated with a 1.46 percentage point lower probability of reopening in person. Finally, we find that a 10 percent rise in union workers at the county level is associated with around a one percentage point decline in the probability of reopening in person. … [W]e generally find that school district reopening decisions are unrelated to COVID-19 risk as measured by recent cases per capita and deaths per capita in the county.

From lining up fake “body bags” outside of school offices to making a list of “demands” over school re-openings, teachers’ unions have put in overtime to convince district leadership and the public that in-person learning will lead to teachers’ deaths (even though scientific studies and the experiences of countries who have reopened schools tell us otherwise).

Not only will continued school closures have long-term detrimental educational consequences that decrease academic readiness, exacerbate academic disparities, and impact socio-emotional and motivational development, they will also negatively impact the economy for the rest of the 21st century.

But students and their families aren’t teachers’ unions first priority, their dues-paying members are, DeAngelis and Makridis continue, “so it is not surprising for them to lobby to reopen public school districts virtually as opposed to in person.”

What’s a viable solution for all stakeholders involved in school closures, particularly the low-income students and students of color who are disproportionately affected? Funding students over systems.