Some Democrats changing tune on school closures amid Omicron COVID surge

Democrats have begun pushing for schools to stay open, amid teachers’ safety concerns about returning to in-person instruction amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s a balancing act for many politicians, as students not returning to school anger parents, but forcing individual learning has upset many teacher unions.

Most notably, in Chicago, many union members refused to return to their schools, closing them for several days in what Mayor Lori Lightfoot called an “illegal walkout.” Then Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker helped get faster testing to ease teachers’ concerns. The conflict ended with an agreement reached between the union and the government on Monday.

Chicago-based Democratic pollster Brian Stryker said the teacher strike could be a turning point for some Democrats.

“When you tell a parent that their child can’t be in school – a lot of times politics doesn’t touch people’s lives, but it has a massive impact on parents’ lives that offends them,” Striker said. “The Chicago strike may be the moment Democrats said: ‘That’s it. We’re done with all of this.'”

The Biden administration is also attempting to tackle the issue, with the White House announcing Wednesday that it will provide more testing to try to keep schools open during Omicron spikes.

Democrats have begun pushing for schools to stay open despite the COVID-19 boom. Above, a teacher walks into an empty classroom during a period of non-traditional instruction at Hazlewood Elementary School in Louisville, Kentucky on January 11.
Photo by John Cherry/Getty Images

The political crisis became apparent to Democrats when their candidate lost in November in the Virginia governor’s race to a Republican who focused on education and criticized last year’s school closures. Now, in what already promises to be a tough midterm election year, stalled voting and growing frustration among their base on spending legislation, they may be facing real trouble over an issue that directly concerns Americans. affects life.

But some teachers are feeling themselves alone in the cold.

John Conaglio, head of the Columbus, Ohio, Education Association, said O’Micron has sickened so many teachers that students aren’t learning in overcrowded classrooms. The union has called for two weeks of distance learning. Still, none of the Democratic-voting city leaders have supported the union.

“I think his silence speaks volumes,” Coneglio said. “We’re hoping that our local politicians will see that this is a city-wide problem, and that sticking their heads in the sand and saying, ‘It’s up to you guys to solve this,’ isn’t fair. “

At the same time, Democrats are aware of the concerns of parents like Megan Bacigalupi, who quit her job at a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit last year to help their two young children deal with the hassle of distance learning. She has since founded a group, CA Parent Power, to keep schools open.

“Overwhelmingly, Democratic parents are quite willing to vote for an independent or a Republican in November,” said Bacigalupi, who had just changed his registration from Democrat to unaffiliated and said he had lost his life. Never voted Republican. “In two years, it doesn’t look like we are in a place where our worldview will not be shaped by COVID policies.”

American Federation of Teachers President Randy Weingarten said the recent story of schools and COVID-19 is a victory. She said so far, in contrast to last winter, when 45 percent of the country’s schools were closed during a boom, when vaccination is widespread and 98 percent of schools are open despite the high COVID-19 caseload.

“It shows remarkable strength and courage and patience on the part of teachers and paraprofessionals,” Weingarten said. “Omicron is the enemy, not each other.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said schools can stay safe when proper protocols are followed, including practicing safe distancing, wearing a mask and getting vaccinated.

“Schools should be the first to open and the last to close,” CDC Director Rochelle Valensky said during a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

Most schools are still individual, and most switches to distance learning are happening on a case-by-case basis as the virus sickens so many teachers. Some of the switches to distance learning that occurred in places like Prince George’s County in Maryland, at the peak of the Omicron version’s spread, are only lasting a couple of weeks. But guardianship activists don’t count on an early return of the districts.

“The idea that these numbers are going to drop sharply over the next two to four weeks is, I think, a dubious prospect,” said Shaver Jeffries, president of the Democrats for Education Reform, which supports charter schools and a return to the virtual. opposes. Learning. “I think it’s a very slippery slope.”

The striker said Biden is clear on the issue, “but I don’t think we’ve heard it much less in the Democratic Party.”

This is harmful, he said, not because voters identify the party with teachers unions, which are one of its biggest supporters, but because they see Democrats as stuck in the past when it comes to virus safety. Comes.

“It’s voters thinking we’re still living in 2020,” the striker said.

Democratic politicians seem to be getting the message. In Nevada, the Clark County School District, which includes Las Vegas, announced that its schools will take extra days off over the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, returning classes next Wednesday due to Omicron. The state’s Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, immediately tweeted his response.

“I know many parents and families will be disappointed by the decision of the Clark County School District,” Sisolak wrote. “Let me be clear, I am fully committed to keeping schools open for personal learning and keeping our students, faculty and staff safe.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.