On Wednesday, as the nation’s political reporters were consumed with an orderly election certification process that Donald Trump’s attorneys were laboring to muddy and confuse, a very disorderly process was unfolding in the state of New York.
That morning, rumors had begun to percolate in local newsrooms that something big was coming. Amid a national spike in Coronavirus infections, and with more hard-hit states once again imposing draconian restrictions on social and economic life to curb the spread, there were murmurs that the New York City school system would again close its doors.
Mayor Bill de Blasio was scheduled to address the press at 10 a.m., but he was nowhere to be found. At around 2 p.m., the city’s school chancellor received word that the schools would, indeed, be shuttered and the parents of the city’s 300,000 students would have to make other arrangements with little notice. Like New York’s parents, Gov. Andrew Cuomo seemed to have no foreknowledge of the mayor’s decision. The revelation appeared to annoy the already sour Cuomo, who struggled to explain the Byzantine patchwork of orange zones, gubernatorial vetoes, competing state and local infection-rate statistics, and autonomous municipal councils that constitute the state’s post-COVID status quo. At 3 p.m., five hours after his scheduled appearance, de Blasio arrived and confirmed the city’s decision to put an indefinite halt to in-person education. It was, Councilman Mark Levin said, “an incredibly traumatic 24 hours.”
But why must schools close? The question has not been answered to anyone’s satisfaction because the answer isn’t at all satisfying. No one is following “The Science” anymore. This isn’t about science—it’s not even really about the pandemic. It’s about power.
Why would the schools close at all? New York City had set a 3 percent community positivity rate as the tripwire for such a sweeping move (though Albany’s metrics pegged the city’s positivity rate at just 2.5 percent). But the city’s public schools had tested more than 140,000 students and staff since schools reopened on October 1 and, as of Wednesday, had seen positive tests come back at a rate of just 0.23 percent. With proper procedures in place, in-person education’s relative safety has long since been established, as have the many undesirable second-order effects of remote learning and social isolation. Institutions like the CDC and authorities, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, have said as much. The city’s decision was so perplexing and surprising, in fact, that it seems to have irritated most of the Northeastern Democratic establishment.
Shortly after New York schools announced their intention to close, the governors of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, and Massachusetts published a collective statement affirming that “in-person learning is safe,” “even in communities with high transmission rates.” Moreover, “there is also growing evidence” that closing down schools contributes to the development of mental-health problems and exacerbates societal inequities. What prompted this cryptic message? These governors do not say, but their intended audience is obvious. Not that this display of servility is likely to get any results. The dominant party in this standoff is well established, and it is not elected officials.
If the patience of the Northeastern political establishment is wearing thin, they’re not alone.
In California, “in a break with their union allies,” Democratic officials are starting to gripe publicly about how the state’s unions have kept schools closed since March despite relatively low local infection rates. There, with private schools open to affluent families—like Gov. Gavin Newsom’s kids—local leaders are deeming their state’s tiered educational system “state-sanctioned segregation.” California’s teachers’ unions have made the most of the pandemic. In Los Angeles, the union voted in July to keep their schools closed until and unless they were provided some form of “Medicare-for-all,” rent abatements, a “wealth tax,” the elimination of public funding for charter schools, expanded public assistance for illegal immigrants, and a commitment from the city to “defund police.” In other words, the unions wanted to prolong this deadlock for the foreseeable future, and they got their wish.
Washington D.C. faces a similar conundrum. On the eve of Election Day, negotiations between the city’s public school system and the teacher’s unions collapsed after the city’s educators staged a “sick-in” to force the cancellation of online classes and to forestall the reopening of schools. Amid rising caseloads, the District’s school teachers were understandably trepidatious about returning to work, but the union’s demands had little to do with their members’ safety. “For instance,” the Washington Post reported, “the Washington Teachers’ Union wants all members, regardless of their health or living situation, to be able to opt-out of in-person teaching” and “community input” beyond expert assessments as to whether schoolrooms were medically safe.
Over the summer, the Chicago Teachers Union warned that teachers “should not or might not” return to the classroom if the city had not yielded to their demands, such as reduced class sizes and flexibility for school employees. The city spent months working to meet those and other sensible demands, but more demands followed. “The Grassroots Education coalition said its members won’t support a plan that isn’t responsive to the needs of special-education students and Black and other minority communities, particularly in neighborhoods with high COVID-19 positivity rates,” the Chicago Tribune reported in October. “They’re also seeking more support for students experiencing homelessness.” Unsurprisingly, negotiations have stalled out. Now, even Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s pledge to open prekindergarten and bring select “education clusters” back to the classroom before the end of 2020 is in doubt.
The story is much the same in the rest of the country’s major metropolitan areas. The political establishment seems to be aware of the disaster they are courting by allowing the extraordinary status quo to linger. But those elected officials and their voters are not in control of events. They are hostage to the most influential political union in their respective cities. Parents are their prisoners, and their anger is starting to boil over.
As it should. It has become inescapably clear that the circumstances around the pandemic have almost no relation to the status of major city school districts, which suggests that this standoff will persist regardless of the efficacy of medical developments that mitigate the coronavirus outbreak. The unions don’t want it to end. The politicians cannot make it end. It will be up to parents to end it.