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Covid school closures backfired on Democrats in a big way

Democrats are doomed to pay a heavy price for ignoring grievances from parents.
Photo illustration: A blue block showing a voting booth, an empty classroom with rows of desks and a red block with a mother voting next to her child in a stroller.
In June 2020, polling showed 56 percent of parents wanted to see children back in school full-time by that fall.MSNBC / Reuters; Getty Images

A great awakening has been imposed upon Democrats, and all it took was an almost uniform double-digit swing toward Republicans in off-year elections.

As early as June 2020, following a nightmarish spring of remote learning, polling began to indicate that parents were fed up

To the extent Democrats can diagnose why voters turned on them, many have begun to acknowledge that part of the blame belongs to conditions that left children without a proper educational experience.

The schools were the issue in New Jersey, where the incumbent governor underperformed his polling and nearly lost the statehouse to a relatively unknown Republican challenger. “For a lot of parents, it was pretty simple,” wrote New York magazine’s Adam Rice. “The public schools were closed for much longer than necessary, and Murphy did too little to open them.”

The schools were the issue in Virginia, where a concerted campaign to anathematize racially conscious pedagogy complimented Republican efforts to drum up antipathy to union-backed school closures. “Parents angry over how schools have operated during the pandemic span the political spectrum, from lifelong liberal Democrats to activist Trump supporters,” The New York Times reported.

While New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait insists there’s “a lot of truth” to the progressive self-affirmation that Republicans are mobilizing the vote against public school closures “because they’re racist,” that isn’t wholly satisfying. Democrats, he wrote, have failed to “curtail the worst ideas of school officials and teachers’ unions.” And if they won’t impose moderation on these institutions, he wrote, parents will. “Public schools may finally be open across the country, but in many districts, things are far from normal,” New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg observed. “It’s a perilous situation for Democrats, the party of public schools.”

The first step toward recovery is recognizing you have a problem. These are welcome revelations. They are, however, motivated not by principle but the tangible political costs associated with the policy preferences of core constituencies within the Democratic coalition. It shouldn’t have taken an election to get to this place. Those costs were foreseeable to anyone who didn’t treat education as just another political football.

As early as June 2020, following a nightmarish spring of remote learning, polling began to indicate that parents were fed up. Then, 56 percent of parents wanted to see children back in school full-time by the fall, according to Gallup. In New York City, a July survey found that a full 75 percent of parents of school-age children wanted to send their kids back for in-person education that fall. By contrast, a majority of the city’s adult population — a constituency with no skin in the game — supported keeping schools closed. Students began to tell pollsters that their academic performance was suffering — a condition their increasingly unnerved parents had noticed. Accordingly, even left-leaning municipalities from San Francisco to Chicago to New York City committed that fall to planning for a phased return to in-person schooling before the winter.

Democrats convinced themselves that siding with school closures was consistent with the national mood.

Of course, the schools didn’t fully reopen that fall. As case rates began to rise once again, plans to bring back in-person education were scuttled, in part, by teachers’ unions and school administrators who refused to go back. That summer, EdWeek’s Research Center found that a full two-thirds of surveyed educators wanted to keep schools closed indefinitely. USA Today/Ipsos confirmed that a shocking 20 percent of teachers would rather resign than teach in a classroom that fall. NPR’s poll of teachers showed 77 percent were concerned about their health more than their absence from their students’ lives. Unsurprisingly, this view comported with the general public’s pandemic-induced apprehension. Thus, Democrats convinced themselves that siding with school closures was consistent with the national mood.

Meanwhile, evidence continued to mount that the most enthusiastic voters were responding positively to politicians who opposed the heavy-handed Covid mitigation measures imposed on kids. By February, the GOP’s off-year campaigns were consolidating around the message that school closures, mask mandates and other public-health interventions were unnecessary, harmful to children and entirely the Democrats’ fault. Given most voters’ apparent indifference or even generally supportive response to school closures in public opinion polls, it was sort of risky messaging strategy that had to be informed by hard data. But Democrats ignored the warning signs. Instead, parents were made to suffer though rationalizations and excuse-making for their kids’ suffering.

Sure, “learning loss” among students who were forced out of schoolrooms was real and measurable, but educators were coached to dismiss it. Remote learning “isn’t perfect,” education writer John Ewing admitted. But “kids are resilient.” You heard that one a lot. They’re so resilient “they gave us a lesson in resilience,” WBUR’s education team marveled. While children are “resilient,” the loss of two years of standard academic instruction and the psychological maladies afflicting involuntarily isolated minors began to appear worse to parents than the pandemic. The sudden disappearance of tens of thousands of children in early 2021 from public school rolls across the country suggests many parents weren’t willing to test their child’s ability to absorb the pandemic’s educational costs for another year.

Even as the political headwinds intensified, the excuse-making never let up. Parents were instructed to stop complaining. After all, public schools were open by January. Well, “nearly half” of them were, the majority of which involved some amount of hybridized online-learning or engaged students for only half day’s instruction. Even that was unsafe, according to The New York Times. On March 2, the paper reported that “only four percent of the nation’s schoolchildren live in counties where coronavirus transmission is low enough for full-time, in-person learning.” If they were still angry over the substandard status quo, parents were told to blame Republicans and their vaccine hesitancy, even though the debate over an offramp out of the pandemic has long since shifted the vaccination burden off adults and onto children over the age of 5.

It’s a wonder how election losses focus the mind.

There was simply no excuse left by the summer, which led proponents of a perpetual pandemic to shift their arguments away from persuasion and toward emotional blackmail. Suddenly, a thinly veiled campaign designed to convince public officials to slow the pace of reopening burst into the forefront of Covid coverage. The New York Times chronicled the harrowing experience of children with “lingering post-COVID neurological, physical, or psychiatric symptoms” including “brain fog” and “concentration difficulties.” A cottage industry of enterprising pundits argued that even wanting schools to be open is a racially suspect artifact of white privilege. “Parents should expect interruptions to in-person school when COVID cases surge in the community,” the Times bluntly warned parents. You just have to “accept that school won’t be normal in the fall,” as put it.

All of this seemed like a reasonable compromise to the demands of the pandemic, and a sensible concession to the interest groups that contribute mightily to Democratic political prospects. And what would be the harm? Plenty of public polls suggested that a majority of American adults were fine with the truncated life children have had to suffer through these last two years. But “adults” don’t vote. Motivated constituencies do. Parents made up just such a constituency, and the most energized voters among them were not willing to accept these onerous and costly emergency measures in perpetuity.

It’s a wonder how election losses focus the mind. Suddenly, all those insurmountable obstacles presented by the ongoing public health crisis have melted away. Democrats paid a steep political price for their motivated reasoning. They’ll pay a heavier price, still, if they fail to heed the lessons they were taught on Election Day. Finding their way out of the trap they’ve made for themselves won’t be easy, but their willingness to admit it was a trap from the start is a step in the right direction.