After a spring and summer of pandemic-related lockdowns across the country, many parents hoped to be able to send their children back to school in some capacity in the fall.
But in a year that turned all discussion of school reopening into a proxy war over the legitimacy of President Donald Trump’s COVID strategy, rational assessments of the risks and benefits of school reopening were hard to find. Though other nations had successfully and safely returned children to the classroom, and research has demonstrated the low risk of coronavirus spread in schools (as well as the detrimental effects virtual schooling was having on children), educational institutions across America remain shuttered even now.
Throughout the summer and early fall, when local officials in Democratic-dominated cities like Washington, D.C. raised the possibility of getting even a small minority of kids back into the classroom, the teachers’ union would stage over-the-top protests featuring fake body bags to signal their unwillingness to return to work. More recently, just before the election, when the mayor again floated a plan for a phased return to in-person instruction in the District, the teachers’ union mounted a “mental health day” strike and the mayor’s office immediately caved and scrapped the plan. Many school districts remained closed or canceled plans for even a partial return to in-person instruction in the fall. Although data on school reopening is not entirely reliable, the majority of American schoolchildren still have not returned to in-person instruction in the classroom.
Trump was not the only one responsible for politicizing the pandemic. On the campaign trail, Biden made a point of politicizing school closures, frequently blaming Trump for the lack of a reopening plan (even though such decisions are made locally) and trafficking in hyperbole about the risks of in-person education.
What a difference an election makes. With former Vice President Joe Biden poised to win the presidential race, concerns about returning to the classroom, particularly in staunchly Democratic parts of the country, have suddenly dissipated. All of a sudden, “solutions” that have been available for months are suddenly being discovered and heralded as a way to get kids back in the classroom.
In Chicago, WGN-TV reports, “Chicago Public Schools said classrooms are ready for students and teachers to safely return Wednesday after the district installed air purifiers and took other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.” Just last month, school administrators were battling the teachers’ union over safety measures. As the Chicago Tribune reported on October 6, they were locked in legal arbitration that threatened a proposed reopening, and “a disputed ruling that buildings could pose COVID-19 risk raises doubts” that they would reopen at all.
One day after the election, “CPS says 99% of its classrooms are ready and the ones that are not will be prioritized for repairs.” In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser’s tone about reopening schools also notably shifted. During a press conference the day after the election, she portrayed herself as someone eager to see children back in the classroom, adding, “All the components for opening schools are in place, except the workforce,” meaning the refusal by the teachers to return to in-person learning.
Of course, it remains to be seen if the teachers’ unions in school districts across the country will embrace this new, optimistic approach. But members of the teachers’ unions might want to reflect on the results of this week’s elections. Though they are likely to yield a Biden victory, the results also suggest that a lot of voters—including Democratic voters—are less enthusiastic about continued lockdowns and school closures than Democratic politicians thought they were.
In Benton County in Washington state, for example, parents have been pressuring the school board to follow through on school reopening plans, particularly for high school students, even as COVID case numbers rise slightly. In early November, just before the election, the Seattle Times reported, “concerned citizens are holding rallies and petitioning for schools to begin face-to-face teaching.”
And school closures have had a significant impact not only on students denied in-person education but also on those who rely on employment at schools as support staff. According to the New York Times, 824,000 Hispanic women have left the labor force since February, and “service sector job losses and school closures have been especially hard on Black and Hispanic women.”
In the weeks to come, if more school districts follow Chicago’s lead and more districts suddenly discover the need to reopen now that the election is (almost) decided, it won’t be cynical to assume that the party that claimed to have always “followed the science” was just playing politics.