Republicans are pummeling Democrats on school reopenings, believing it will be a potent wedge issue in the midterm elections and offer the GOP a path back to winning suburban voters.
Explosive battles are playing out in Democratic-led cities and states over how quickly public schools should reopen and Republicans are picking at divisions between elected officials and teachers unions.
The GOP’s House and Senate campaign arms are tracking union donations to Democratic members and accusing them of putting special interests ahead of student education.
In a floor speech this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse to act on debt ceiling next week White House warns GOP of serious consequences on debt ceiling Lindsey Graham: Police need 'to take a firm line' with Sept. 18 rally attendees MORE (R-Ky.) railed against what he described as Democratic “goalpoast-moving,” pointing to districts that refuse to return to in-person learning until all teachers have been vaccinated.
GOP members of the House and Senate have introduced resolutions to restrict government funds for public schools that have not reopened.
“There could not be a more potent issue out there right now and it fits a perfect need for the Republican Party,” said a GOP Senate aide. “A lot of Republicans lost last year because suburban voters were repelled by Trump. If there’s one thing suburbanites care about right now, it’s putting kids back in school and the growing view is that the Democratic Party is so tied to teachers unions that they’re the ones keeping kids from learning.”
Republicans are hopeful the issue will help them make inroads even in blue states.
Former San Diego Mayor Kevin FaulconerKevin FaulconerSeven takeaways from California's recall election Newsom easily beats back recall effort in California How Gavin Newsom fought back against the recall MORE (R), who might run for governor of California if Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomPhotos of the Week: Renewable energy, gymnast testimonies and a Met Gala dress California at risk of losing out on hundreds of millions in federal rental assistance, auditor warns Schwarzenegger says Californians 'made the right decision' not to recall Newsom MORE (D) is recalled, hammered Newsom at a press conference he conducted this week in front of two schools — a private school that was open and a public school that was closed.
Republican businessman Pete Snyder is similarly pounding a message to reopen schools as he seeks the governor’s mansion in Virginia, where some officials have made headlines for saying schools should not reopen until every student is vaccinated.
Union leaders are furious at the allegations, accusing Republicans of scapegoating teachers who want a return to normalcy but are seeking to ensure the health of educators and students alike.
COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations have begun to decline in recent weeks as the vaccine rollout gets underway, but there are deep concerns about the safety of adult educators as new viral strains emerge.
“The Republicans are using this crisis to scapegoat teachers, who are working all over the country to reopen schools for kids who most need it and to make sure that it’s safe,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Still, divisions between mayors and governors pushing to reopen now, and the unions and school districts seeking additional safeguards, have spilled into the public view in Democratic strongholds.
In Chicago, the clash between the city and the teachers has turned ugly after a deal to reopen schools was abruptly dashed. Teachers are considering a strike to avoid returning to classrooms as Chicago Public Schools threaten to lock them out of remote classrooms.
Democratic Mayor Lori LightfootLori LightfootChicago teachers to 'step up resistance' if school district doesn't improve COVID-19 protections Chicago becomes latest city to require vaccinations for workers 2 brothers charged in fatal shooting of Chicago police officer MORE fumed at the teachers unions, saying the city had invested more than $100 million in new safety protocols ahead of the agreed-upon return.
“We’ve had three weeks of safely implementing our plan until the teachers union blew it up,” Lightfoot said on MSNBC this week.
In California, Newsom is frustrated by demands from some teachers that they be vaccinated before schools reopen.
Teachers in many states are at or near the front of the line to get vaccinated, but Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyFDA panel endorses COVID-19 booster shots for older Americans, rejects widespread use Watch live: White House COVID-19 response team holds briefing The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows MORE said this week that vaccinations should not be a prerequisite for teachers returning to the classroom.
The city of San Francisco has taken the dramatic step of suing its school district to force the doors open as teachers unions there demand vaccinations before educators return.
“If everybody has to be vaccinated, we might as well just tell people the truth - there will be no in-person instruction in the state of California,” Newsom said.
Weingarten said the tensions playing out are because of the personal nature of the matter and the enormous pressure to reopen in the right way so that lives are not at risk and schools are not in position of needing to shut down again in a few months.
“The tension you’re seeing is because there’s a real need to address the issues children have with learning and the trauma of social isolation,” she said. “I think these mayors are concerned about what it means in the long term for children, and so are we, which is why we’ve been fighting for months for the resources and safeguards we need to do this right.”
Nearly two-thirds of public schools have been operating virtually for the past year, according to data from Burbio.
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that virtual learning is an inadequate substitute for in-person education. As students fall behind academically, delinquency rates soar, and children suffer emotional trauma from isolation.
The CDC released research in recent weeks suggesting that it is safe to reopen schools if people wear masks and socially distance from one another.
Democrats insist they’re united behind President Biden’s plan to return to in-person learning once Congress passes the next round of COVID-19 relief, which includes $130 billion in new school funding for testing, protective equipment, ventilation and other safeguards.
The Biden administration has sought to talk down the CDC report about schools being low-transmission zones, saying the data was taken from rural areas. And they’ve sidestepped Walensky’s remarks about teachers not needing vaccines to return, saying the White House is still waiting for the CDC to produce a comprehensive school reopening plan.
Pollsters say the issue is notoriously difficult to survey, as most people want schools to safely reopen but there is disagreement over what is viewed as safe.
An Axios-Ipsos survey this week found that many Americans are increasingly comfortable with schools reopening. Fifty-nine percent said they have some level of concern about safety, down from 74 percent in August. Only 33 percent are extremely concerned, down from 50 percent.
“Suburban moms and the administration agree on reopening safely,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “There may be some mayors and unions disagreeing on the specifics, but they all want to open safely, so Republicans are really just trying to drive divisions on an issue that we’re in agreement on.”
California Democratic operative Tyler Law dismissed the GOP criticism, saying voters would instead punish Republicans that oppose Biden’s coronavirus relief package.
“Republicans are going to bury any Covid-related message in six feet of manure as soon as they vote against the widely supported relief bill,” Law said.
But Republicans say public opinion is swiftly moving against Democrats as a groundswell of parents advocate for schools to reopen.
“Parents across the nation are frustrated and want their children back in school, and will remember in November 2022 it’s House Democrats who put special interests before kids’ education,” said Camille Gallo, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee.