Last week, when Chicago teachers went on strike to protest COVID-19 safety protections in the nation’s third-largest school system, Democratic Party politicians sprang to their feet.
J.B. Pritzker, the governor of Illinois, pushed for a swift conclusion to the strike and helped obtain quick testing to bring teachers back to work. The strikers “abandoned their stations” in a “illegal walkout,” according to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, while White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated that pupils should remain in school. Late Monday, a tentative deal was reached to resolve the deadlock.
Democrats are speaking out more aggressively against COVID-19 school closures, over two years into a pandemic that shows no signs of abating, recognizing a growing outrage among parents concerned that their children are falling behind. However, by doing so, Democrats risk enraging certain teachers unions, who are pushing for additional protections for educators in the wake of an outbreak of the highly infectious omicron variety, and whose votes helped Democrats win.
After their nominee lost the Virginia governor’s election in November to a Republican who focused on education and attacked the previous year’s school closures, Democrats’ electoral risk became evident. Now, in what is shaping up to be a difficult midterm election year, with discontent rising among their base over blocked voting and spending bills, they may find themselves in serious jeopardy over a subject that directly touches the lives of Americans.
“When you tell a parent their child can’t go to school,” Brian Stryker, a Democratic pollster in Chicago, said, “a lot of times politics doesn’t touch people’s lives, but it’s a big impact on parents’ life that pisses them off.” “The Chicago strike might be the turning point for Democrats, when they say, ‘Enough is enough.'” ‘We’ve completed all of these.’
Some instructors have been left out in the cold as a result of this. Omicron has affected so many instructors, according to John Coneglio, president of the Columbus, Ohio, Education Association, that pupils aren’t studying in packed classrooms. Two weeks of remote learning has been requested by the union. Despite this, none of the city’s Democratic leaders have endorsed the union.
Coneglio stated, “I believe their silence talks.” “We’re hoping that our local officials see that this is a city-wide issue and that burying one’s head in the sand and saying, ‘It’s up to you folks to handle this,’ isn’t fair.”
Democrats, on the other hand, are aware of the worries of parents like Megan Bacigalupi, who left her work at a San Francisco Bay Area organization last year to assist her two young children cope with the challenges of distance learning. She went on to form CA Parent Power, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping schools open.
“Democratic parents are overwhelmingly inclined to vote for an independent or a Republican in November,” said Bacigalupi, who just switched her membership from Democrat to unaffiliated and claims to have never voted Republican. “After two years, it doesn’t feel like we’ve arrived to a point where COVID policies haven’t affected our viewpoint.”
The recent tale of schools and COVID-19, according to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is a victory. She compared last winter’s outbreak, when up to 45 percent of the country’s schools were shuttered, to now, when immunizations are widely available and 98 percent of schools are open despite much larger COVID-19 caseloads.
“On behalf of teachers and paraprofessionals, that demonstrates incredible strength, courage, and endurance,” Weingarten added. “The adversary is Omicron, not each other.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, schools may stay safe if correct practices are followed, such as safe distance, wearing masks, and being vaccinated.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a Senate hearing Tuesday that schools should be the first to open and the last to close.
Schools in Oakland, where Bacigalupi resides, won’t return until August 2021, and they were shuttered for one day last week due to a teacher sickout protesting circumstances during the omicron surge.
Bacigalupi’s dissatisfaction is echoed by an increasing number of education-minded parents who have become activists to fight extended school closures.
“I’ve been watching my party’s failure unfold in real time,” said Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union and a Massachusetts Democratic Party committee member, “and it’s devastating because unfortunately, I feel like the Democrats in this country are just not in conversation with parents, families, and communities, and have completely ignored us to listen only to the unions’ priorities.”
The great majority of schools are still in-person, and most remote learning transitions are taking place on a case-by-case basis as the virus sickens too many instructors. At the peak of the omicron variant distribution, the few transitions to remote learning that have occurred, such as in Prince George’s County, Maryland, are only anticipated to last a few weeks. However, parent advocates are skeptical that the districts would return swiftly.
“I believe it’s a questionable possibility that these numbers would decline significantly in the next two to four weeks,” said Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, which supports charter schools but opposes the return to virtual learning. “I believe this is a very dangerous path to take.”
Republicans, on the other hand, are content to continue to criticize Democrats over school closures.
“(President Joe) Biden vowed to get kids back in school and combat COVID – he has failed to achieve both,” said Republican National Committee press secretary Emma Vaughn.
Biden has become increasingly outspoken on the need of face-to-face training. Psaki stated on Monday that the White House was attempting to “help” Pritzker and Lightfoot in their efforts to end the strike.
“The president’s perspective is that schools should be open across the nation, and more than 95 percent are; that the mental health impact on children of not having schools open is really harsh and difficult, and he does not want to see schools closed across the country,” Psaki said.
“I don’t believe we’ve heard it trickle down in the Democratic Party enough,” said Stryker, the Democratic pollster. Biden has been clear on the topic, but “I don’t think we’ve heard it trickle down in the Democratic Party enough.”
This is harmful, he added, not because people associate Democrats with teachers unions, who are among the party’s most ardent supporters, but because they perceive Democrats to be stuck in the past when it comes to virus protection.
“It’s voters who believe we’re still in 2020,” Stryker explained.
The message appears to be getting through to Democratic lawmakers. Because of the omicron surge, the Clark County School District in Nevada, which encompasses Las Vegas, announced on Tuesday that its schools will have additional days off for the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, returning to classrooms the following Wednesday. Steve Sisolak, the state’s Democratic governor, responded promptly on Twitter.
“I realize the Clark County School District’s decision will frustrate many parents and families,” Sisolak stated. “Let me be clear: I am fully dedicated to keeping schools open for in-person learning while also ensuring the safety of our children, educators, and staff.”