Feehery: How Republicans can win by focusing on schools

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The Biden administration promise to open half the nation’s schools for one day a week by the end of the President’s first hundred days in office has presented the Republican Party a huge opportunity.

To achieve Mr. Biden’s goal, schools across the country would have to shut down, because more than half our nation’s schools are already open for more than one day a week.

Perhaps that is why the CDC put out its new recommendations that would actually put more pressure on school districts across the country to close down. This is despite the overwhelming evidence that schools are not major vectors of COVID-19 transmission.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) hosted a phone call last week with thousands of activists from around the country who are desperate for their local schools to open. Most of these folks live in well-to-do suburbs represented by moderate Democrats.

This is not surprising. Studies show that political affiliation is a far better predictor of whether your local school is open or not than any other data point. If you live in a blue city and in a blue state, you have almost no chance of your public schools being opened for in-person learning. If you live in a red city in a red state, you have almost no chance of having your public school closed to in-person instruction.

Scalise was smart to connect to these aggrieved parents for two reasons. First, they have compelling stories to tell about the struggles their children are facing when forced to learn virtually, or not learn virtually as the case might be. And second, these folks, and thousands like them, are learning to step up, become politically active, and find their voice to change an unresponsive and moribund bureaucracy. They are learning valuable lessons about fighting for their rights as parents, about advocating for their children, and about demanding accountability from public officials.

Today’s school opening activists might become tomorrow’s school board candidates or legislative candidates. And today’s campaign to use science to open schools might very well become tomorrow’s campaign to allow for high school kids to play sports without masks or to stop left-wing cultural warriors from teaching our children warped views of our national history.

This fight to open schools has been far more difficult than any of us parents could imagine.

Yes, the unions are formidable foes. But it is not just the unions that are keeping kids at home. It is also school boards and school superintendents. They have largely been in lock-step with the unions. And not many politicians, at the state, local and federal level, have really made school openings a priority, outside of the Steve Scalises of the world.

The reasons are complex. Health officials have a better-be-safe-than-sorry mentality that endorses caution over common-sense. Many older Americans don’t want kids to go back to school because they are worried that it will lead to more community spread, despite all the evidence otherwise. Even many parents, according to the polls, don’t want their kids to go back to school. This is especially the case with African-Americans and Hispanics. That might be because of the perception that COVID-19 has hit minority communities the hardest (although a new study from Vox showed that the racial breakdown of those who have died from the coronavirus mirrors roughly that of society in general).

And the media has played a less than constructive role in getting kids back to school, covering every outbreak like it is the latest episode of “Contagion” and largely ignoring the overwhelming evidence from the thousands of schools that are already open of how safe schools really are when it comes to COVID.

Despite the challenges, Republicans are smart to engage with parents on this school fight. By the time November 2022, things hopefully will return to normal, and kids will be back in school, in person, five days a week, without masks. But the memory of the shutdowns will linger. And those memories will animate the next generation of activists. And perhaps lead to new congressional majorities in the next election.

Feehery is a partner at EFB Advocacy and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com. He served as spokesman to former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) when he was majority whip and as a speechwriter to former House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).

Tags Dennis Hastert distance learning in-person education Steve Scalise teachers unions

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