Iowa School Districts with Strong Teachers Unions More Likely to Adopt Mask Mandates

A new GW-led study suggests teachers across the country can play an influential role in pandemic safety as students go back to school this fall.

August 3, 2021

Students and teacher wearing masks.

The research team, led by a GW professor, found that the probability of schools adopting a mask mandate increased along with the teachers’ unionization rate.

School districts in Iowa were more likely to adopt COVID-19 mask mandates if they had a strong teachers union, according to a study led by a George Washington University researcher. This suggests teachers unions may play a crucial role in ensuring that COVID-19 recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are implemented at the local level.

“Safely reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most pressing public health challenges facing the nation this fall,” said Adam Dean, lead author and an assistant professor of political science at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. “Our study suggests teachers unions could play an important role in helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The study was published in the August issue of the journal “Health Affairs.” 

Dr. Dean and his colleagues knew that teachers unions supported mask mandates, but no one had studied the issue to see if union demands lead to the adoption of this important safety measure. To find out, the research team examined proprietary data on school district unionization and mask mandates from the Iowa State Education Association, the teachers union in the state.

The researchers found that the probability of schools adopting a mask mandate increased along with the teachers’ unionization rate. They also found that the political partisanship of union members made a big difference. School districts with Democratic-leaning union members were more likely than districts with Republican union members to adopt mask requirements.

Last fall, the CDC strongly encouraged schools to require mask wearing as part of a strategy to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, there was no national requirement for school districts to go along with the recommendation. Policies regarding mask wearing were left up to local school districts in Iowa and many other states.

Although the study was conducted in Iowa, Dr. Dean and his colleagues believe the results may hold true for schools in other states as well. 

“Our study is the first to look at the role that labor unions play in helping to make schools safer during the pandemic,” he said. “Not just for teachers, but for students and parents as well.”

Public health experts say mask mandates in schools can help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, including the highly-contagious Delta variant.

In addition to Dr. Dean, the research team included Jamie McCallum, an associate professor at Middlebury College; Simeon Kimmel, an assistant professor at Boston University; and Atheendar Venkataramani, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania.