“It’s going to be very hard for states that have epidemics right now to reopen their schools in the fall, tragically,” said American Institute scholar and former FDA chief Scott Gottlieb during a July 6 interview. This assertion must have landed with a thud. Six days later, Gottlieb’s Wall Street Journal op-ed opened with a contradictory imperative: “Schools should open in the fall.”
Gottlieb’s optimistic outlook was not without caveats. He conceded it would be difficult (though not impossible) for the states now seeing a surge in COVID-19 infections to pursue any kind of reopening. But the contours of what has now become an entirely politicized debate around in-person education do not seem to observe the regional distinctions Gottlieb described. The stage is now set for a bitter battle between the parents of students, their teachers, and the politicians who must arbitrate this dispute. And so far, those politicians are siding with teachers.
A late May survey found that nearly two-thirds of educators polled by teaching-industry publication EdWeek’s Research Center wanted to keep schools closed indefinitely. A USA Today/Ipsos poll from the same period confirmed that one-in-five teachers would refuse to go back to school if their classrooms reopened.
That apprehension has not abated in the intervening weeks. As the New York Times reported on Saturday, teachers around the country have taken to social media to argue that classrooms should not reopen at all until their localities had seen zero new COVID-19 cases for at least two weeks. Teachers unions, in particular, have pushed back against expert guidance like that provided by the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommend guidelines for safely reintegrating students into their schools. “[E]ducators are using some of the same organizing tactics they employed in walkouts over issues of pay and funding in recent years to demand that schools remain closed,” the Times reported.
The highly localized debate around reopening public schools ensures that the issue cannot be fairly summarized in one blog post. And yet, an overview of two municipalities with wildly divergent infection rates—New York City and Los Angeles—does suggest that the issue has been nationalized.
While New York City plans on reopening public schools, it will be on a part-time basis. Students will receive perhaps two or three days of in-person education. Nevertheless, many teachers are planning on protesting reopening or seeking medical exemptions to teach remotely. But while 53 percent of the city’s adult population believes reopening for in-person education is a dangerous idea, a staggering 75 percent of school-age parents disagree.
But New York is different, we are told. There is a sustained downward trend in new COVID-19 cases in the state, so parents are of course more comfortable with classrooms. Right? Well, that doesn’t seem to matter much in California. There, with new infections on the rise, the same tension between parents and teachers is unfolding.
Last week, the union representing Los Angeles’s unified school district teachers voted overwhelmingly against reopening classrooms in the fall. The city has since relented to the demands of its teachers. “The safety and well-being of our students is and will always be our priority,” said one union representative. We must assume, then, that these teachers care more for the safety of L.A.’s children than their own parents. A Survey USA poll of California parents found that a plurality—34 percent—favored at least a hybrid learning plan that would partially reopen schools. This finding was confirmed by a California Opinion Surveys study, which showed that 57 percent of state residents favored either a partial or full reopening. Just 37 percent backed full-time distance learning.
That same survey showed that there is increased apprehension among parents over the quality of education that distance learning provides and that distaste with the status quo is observable across the country. A Gallup poll released in June revealed that 56 percent of parents found distance learning to be “difficult.” That Gallup poll also showed that a whopping 56 percent of all parents of K-through-12 students want full-time, in-person schooling this fall. Only 7 percent of those polled backed full-time distance learning.
Public opinion would appear to favor in-person education. But teachers and their unions have effectively leveraged their political clout and the valid concerns they have about the health risks of working in a classroom environment to promote a political outcome that is otherwise unsupported by the public they serve. Those at-risk teachers have a powerful story to tell, but so do parents.
Survey the national media landscape, and it’s not hard to find the sentiments of the 7 percent of parents Gallup surveyed. Though many acknowledge that the choice to keep their children out of classrooms is a luxury, it’s one that working parents simply cannot afford.
“This is completely ridiculous,” said one Pennsylvania-based parent of a student consigned to a hybrid learning plan in the fall. “People have to work.” “These plans are completely untenable,” another concurred. “Who is going to watch all of these kids when they would normally be in school?” Said an astute observer: “It’s almost like whoever made this plan doesn’t have kids, has never stepped foot in a school.”
Even those who are less than gung-ho about the prospect of in-person teaching concede that their livelihoods (and their kids’ welfares) depend on it. Many parents have found the effects of distance learning on their children to be emotionally stultifying or insufficient to their educational needs. Others just don’t have the means.
We are left with two competing but entirely valid interests—the health and success of children versus that of their educators. But the indefinite postponement of in-person education is an abrogation of the social contract. Those who sought out their districts and pay property taxes commensurate with the services they pursued are being told they are out of luck. And they’re not entitled to a refund.
Until and unless these parents resolve to organize in the way teachers and administrators have, they will continue to be dismissed by their elected officials. It has been clear for some time that political currency is now a function of the size of the crowd you can summon into the streets. It was a terrible precedent to set, but it is nonetheless now fully established. That’s how the game is played, and parents will have to learn how to play it.