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WILL study: Unions, political affiliation more predictive of virtual learning decision than COVID cases
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WILL study: Unions, political affiliation more predictive of virtual learning decision than COVID cases

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The Madison Metropolitan School District is among those in Wisconsin that opted to begin the school year virtually.

Political affiliation and union representation were more strongly related to Wisconsin school district decisions to opt for virtual or in-person instruction this fall than COVID-19 positivity rate, according to a new report.

The study from the conservative Wisconsin Institute For Law & Liberty (WILL) published Monday found that 14% of districts in the state with a union began the year with virtual-only instruction compared to just 3% of those without union representation. Political affiliation, measured by the 2016 vote share for Donald Trump in a school district’s county, had an even larger correlation.

Average COVID-19 cases per 100,000, meanwhile, were nearly identical between districts going virtual and those returning for in-person instruction. In the three weeks before the school year began, when many districts made decisions about the upcoming year, the rates were 10.96 in districts going virtual and 10.99 in those returning to in-person school, study author Will Flanders said in an interview.

“(That was) the most surprising aspect to me,” Flanders said. “I thought that union presence and political ideology probably would play a role but I didn’t expect the rate of coronavirus in the area to play no significant role.”

The findings locally mirror a national study of about 10,000 districts across the country highlighted in the Washington Post last week.

Debates over the summer about whether in-person school would be safe during the COVID-19 pandemic have continued into this fall, with mixed results for districts that returned to in-person instruction. While there is growing evidence that children are not “superspreaders” of the novel coronavirus, schools around the state have also had to move abruptly from in-person to virtual as staff and students are forced to quarantine because of close contacts with someone who has tested positive.

[MMSD will remain all virtual through Jan. 22, 2021]

Flanders acknowledged that the current spike in Wisconsin, which has reached most communities, has created a different environment than what existed before the school year.

“It’s difficult to even put ourselves back a couple months ago and think what the situation was like then,” he said. “There was a lot more variation.”

That union presence correlated with virtual instruction is not necessarily a surprise, as teachers' unions around the country pushed over the summer for low positivity numbers and safety measures to be in place before in-person instruction returned. Many of the nation’s largest school districts went with virtual instruction. New York City, the most notable exception, delayed the beginning of the school year by weeks and is nearing the threshold to return to virtual learning as the city sees a second wave.

Locally, Madison Teachers Inc. demanded the Madison Metropolitan School District begin with virtual instruction just one day before the district announced its plans. MTI leadership asked the district to remain virtual until there were 14 consecutive days of zero cases.

Flanders said the study’s findings show unions still have some sway.

“There are broader implications for school decision-making,” he said. “We see that even though Act 10 is thought of as having tremendously weakened teachers unions, we still see evidence that there is some level of strength there, at least in certain areas of the state.”

[Wisconsin schools ‘whipsawing’ as COVID-19 hits rural districts]

The political polarization finding also mirrors nationwide trends, as Democrat-leaning areas were more likely to begin the year remotely. Polling on the issue, Flanders noted in the study, shows Republicans were more likely to support returning to in-person learning sooner compared to Democrats. Flanders told the Cap Times that “it’s pretty clear” that topics around COVID-19 “have been politicized.”

“At the most sort of basic level … there is a difference in risk aversion among conservatives and liberals that’s inherent in a lot of issues, as well,” he said. “But I think the overall politicization of the issue is obviously the biggest driver there.”

Flanders noted that districts that went virtual were also more likely to have a higher percentage of low-income students. Low-income families have been especially affected by the pandemic, but also face more challenges to gain consistent access to virtual learning, heightening concerns about the opportunity gap growing around the country.

“We really need to focus on how we can get resources to these families,” Flanders said.

His organization advocates for directing educational funding that goes to school districts directly to families. School districts, on the other hand, have tried to meet the needs by providing hotspots for internet access and the daycare opportunities for working families.

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Scott Girard is the local k-12 education reporter at the Cap Times. A Madison native, he joined the paper in 2019 after working for six years for Unified Newspaper Group. Follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.

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