Pandemic pushes teachers unions to center stage ahead of midterms

Republicans are working to tie Democrats to teachers unions ahead of the midterms as frustrations over the unions’ opposition to in-person learning amid the omicron surge grow. 

The party is targeting vulnerable Democratic lawmakers, pushing them to speak out against school closures as teachers unions across the country push for remote learning. 

GOP accusations of Democrats being beholden to teachers unions are not unique to this election cycle. But the coronavirus pandemic placed education issues, including masking in schools and in-person versus remote learning, squarely in the center of the political conversation.

The strategy proved to be successful for Republicans in last year’s gubernatorial elections, with GOP candidates blaming Democrats and teachers unions for the school shutdowns in 2020 that resulted in frustration among working parents and learning gaps among students. 

The question now is whether the strategy will work at the federal level, where lawmakers have less control over state and local education policy. Some strategists say it will.

“All politics have become national,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye. “School closures are one of those things that have hit that level as well.” 

The effort comes as Chicago schools find themselves in the national spotlight after the Chicago Teachers Union voted late Tuesday night to temporarily move to remote learning and the city’s public school system canceled classes beginning Wednesday.

The last-minute move left parents frustrated at the prospect of children being kept home once again nearly two years into the pandemic. One Chicago mom likened the situation to parents feeling like “they’re children in an ongoing divorce” during an interview on NewsNation on Wednesday. 

Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) and the state’s Republicans were successfully able to tap into similar frustrations last year among Virginia parents. 

“If it weren’t for the school closures, I don’t know if Youngkin wins,” Heye said. 

Now national Republicans are hoping to expand on that and draw a direct line between Democratic lawmakers and teachers unions through campaign donations. 

“Democrat politicians remain silent because they don’t want to offend their big money donors,” National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spokesman Mike Berg said in a statement on Monday. 

Last year the NRCC made a point of calling out various lawmakers for taking donations from teachers unions. The committee kicked off the first week of 2022 taking particular aim at Michigan Reps. Dan Kildee (D) and Elissa Slotkin (D). 

“Remote learning is devastating to children’s educational development and mental health. Unfortunately, Dan Kildee won’t criticize the teachers unions pushing schools to go remote because they fund his campaigns,” Berg said in another statement, reacting to news that Flint, Mich., schools would be going back to virtual learning amid the rise in coronavirus cases. 

Kildee hit back in a statement, pointing to Republican opposition to the American Rescue Plan, which passed last year and allocated $122 billion to safely reopening schools.  

“As part of the American Rescue Plan, I secured federal resources to help Michigan schools reopen, so we could get our children and teachers back in the classroom safely,” Kildee said in a statement to The Hill. “Every single Republican voted against this vital relief. In Congress, I’ll keep working to deliver federal resources so local officials can make the best decisions for children and teachers.”

While Virginia Republicans sought to tie Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe to the teachers unions during the governor’s race, McAuliffe also tied himself closely to the unions, including American Federation of Teachers Chair Randi Weingarten. Republicans said the move did nothing to boost McAuliffe as the tides were turning in the race. 

“The MVP for Glenn Youngkin was Randi Weingarten,” Heye said. 

Weingarten and teachers unions acknowledge that in-person learning is normally the best option for students, but say temporary remote learning is needed for safety purposes as cities keep hitting new coronavirus case records while scrambling to provide enough testing. 

“We know in person schooling is what’s best for students academically, and for their mental health. But the reality of omicron is that it spreads quickly, and we’re likely to see some temporary reactive closures in the coming weeks, both because of infection rates and staff shortages,” Weingarten, who toured New York City schools in person on Wednesday and Thursday, said in a statement to The Hill. “This makes regular testing — including a test to leave isolation — as well as well-fitting masks, ventilations and of course, vaccines and boosters, all the more important to keep the entire education community safe.”

Union advocates also argue that elected officials are at fault for not preparing for another surge in coronavirus cases. 

“There needs to be better testing systems in place, there needs to be more school based vaccination, everyone should have PPE, schools should be clean,” said Emma Tai, executive director at United Working Families. 

Democrats have brushed off the attacks, calling it another attempt to make education a divisive issue. The party has also continued to hit the GOP over its opposition to the American Rescue Plan.

“Every single House Republican voted to keep critical relief out of the hands of school districts who needed help keeping kids safe in their classrooms,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson Nebeyatt Betre. “Democrats are the only ones in Congress who fought to provide resources last year to help the vast majority of classrooms stay safely open during this pandemic Republicans are prolonging.”

Democrats also point to recent comments from officials in the Biden administration, New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D), and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) supporting in-person learning. President Biden this week reiterated his desire to see schools remain open.

“Long story short we want schools to be open, the president wants them to be open, and we’re going to continue to use every resource and work to ensure that’s the case,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday. 

However, Republicans are unlikely to stop targeting down-ballot Democrats over their ties to teachers unions amid the pandemic. And given how successful the strategy was in Virginia, the controversy involving the Chicago Teachers Union could create the perfect storm. 

“Unions like the Chicago Teachers Union are not doing anyone any favors,” said Adrian Hemond, a Michigan-based Democratic strategist. 

“Not only do people want their lives back but they see the impact that the lack of socialization and the lack of in-person schooling is having on their children and they’re pissed,” he added. 

But Hemond added that the fiasco involving Chicago schools and the teachers union is not necessarily representative of the situation all teachers unions and school districts are in at the moment, and that Democrats outside of Chicago should take advantage of that. 

“Honestly using the Chicago Teachers Union as a foil makes all of the sense in the world. It’s a way to keep the heat off of your own union allies,” he said. “It’s a way to keep the heat off of your own teachers unions and point out super egregious behavior but also to let parents know that you get it.” 

Hemond added that Democrats have ignored the issue “at their peril,” warning that regardless of the state of the pandemic, Republicans will continue to hammer them on it ahead of Election Day. 

“Ultimately in most of these jurisdictions, the teachers unions are working with the administration and with parents to get back to in-person education,” he said. “There are some egregious examples where that’s not the case and Democrats need to run like hell from those examples.” 

Tags Coronavirus Dan Kildee Elissa Slotkin Glenn Youngkin Jen Psaki Joe Biden Lori Lightfoot Pandemic Remote learning teachers unions Terry McAuliffe

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