Steven V. Roberts: Why open schools matter

Published 11:59 pm Thursday, January 20, 2022

Republican Glenn Youngkin was recently sworn in as the new governor of Virginia, a state that Joe Biden won by almost half a million votes. What caused such a rapid shift in sentiment?

There were many factors, but one stands out: schools.

ALG Research, a Democratic polling firm, surveyed Biden voters who had switched to Youngkin and concluded: “They felt buffeted by changing and inconsistent policies and concerned about the impact on student learning loss, and there was a sense among some that Virginia was not following the science by keeping schools closed later than other states. One participant, a Biden voter, stated flat-out that her vote for Youngkin ‘was against the party that closed the schools for so long last year.’”

Terry McAuliffe, the losing Democratic candidate, made a particularly disastrous mistake by declaring during a debate, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

But as ALG observed, his gaffe “wasn’t the whole of the problem by any stretch.” It was so damaging because it “played into an existing narrative that Democrats didn’t listen to parents … (Parents) broadly don’t feel heard right now when it comes to schools, and they blame liberals and Democrats.”

Democrats are facing an extremely challenging environment as the fall midterm elections heat up, but to mitigate the damage, they have to learn the lesson of Virginia. “There is no public tolerance for serious disruptions in people’s lives,” Harvard’s Bob Blendon, an expert on public health issues, told Politico. “People have run out of patience.”

Yes, they have, and Republicans are already exploiting that fatigue. “This is going to be a huge issue, one of the defining issues when we get to November 2022,” Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, told CQ Roll Call. “It’s going to be very easy for us to point out that Democrats ignored the science and stood with their special-interest donors instead of with students.”

COVID-19 is such a potent issue because it affects, and infects, every family, every day. Donald Trump lost to Biden in large part because he so badly bungled his reaction to the pandemic, minimizing its threat and showing little regard for its victims. Biden was far more effective at evincing empathy, and he certainly didn’t cause the delta and omicron mutations. But he’s made two major mistakes.

The first was to focus too intently on the scientific and medical battle against COVID-19, and not enough on the side effects of that fight. Democrats like Biden, wrote Jonathan Chait in New York, emphasized “a zero-COVID policy that refused to weigh the trade-off of any measure that could even plausibly claim to suppress the pandemic.”

But any public policy decision involves costs as well as benefits. As Dr. Uzma Hasan of RWJBarnabas Health in New Jersey told The New York Times, “The mental health crisis caused by school closing will be a worse pandemic than COVID.”

Writes Chait, “It is now indisputable, and almost undisputed, that the year and a quarter of virtual school imposed devastating consequences on the students who endured it. … The damage to a generation of children’s social development and educational attainment, and particularly to the social mobility prospects of its most marginalized members, will be irrecoverable.”

Biden’s second mistake was to buckle under to powerful teachers’ unions, who strongly reinforced the impulse to shutter schools. The Economist blamed these unions for ignoring evidence from other countries, which argued that schools could be kept open safely, writing, “Over the past two years, America’s children have missed more time in the classroom than those in most of the rich world. … Children have little to gain from school closures and much to lose. Teachers’ unions should stop dumping the pandemic’s costs on them.”

The disillusionment with Democrats that shook up the Virginia race is showing up elsewhere. The Atlantic, a left-leaning magazine, published a widely discussed article by Cleveland writer Angie Schmitt entitled, “Why I Soured on the Democrats: COVID school policies set me adrift from my tribe.” A similar diatribe in Politico by Oakland-based Rebecca Bodenheimer proclaimed, “How School Closures Made Me Question My Progressive Politics: I’ve never felt more alienated from the liberal Democratic circles I usually call home.”

Without voters like Schmitt and Bodenheimer, and countless other parents of school-age kids, Democrats will face a really bleak future. To start winning them back, Democrats have to make keeping schools open a top priority. And tell the teachers’ unions to get lost.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University.  His new book is “Cokie: A Life Well Lived.” Email him at stevecokie@