Open the Schools

On the merits of the case, it’s a close call. On the politics it’s a no-brainer. I’d go with the politics.

I speak here of decisions to open schools or force teaching online due to the latest virus surge. The decision pits parents (also known as voters) against teachers unions (also known as THE sacred cow in the Democratic Party).

(Madison opened its schools yesterday after a week’s delay, in part because of pushback from parents who objected to starting the semester online. After a week of high profile negotiations the City of Chicago has reached an agreement to open with its teachers union.)

Let’s tackle the merits first. On the side of keeping schools closed is the argument that the omicron variant is highly contageous, that testing is inadequate, that school staff is depleted and that schools can reopen when things improve — rapidly according to experts, in the late winter.

On the side of opening immediately is the argument that kids do much better when physically in school, working parents rely on schools to take care of their children while at work, and omicron is catchy but not nearly as dangerous as previous variants.

Given those arguments, I don’t think it’s all that unreasonable for districts to delay in-person classes until omicron burns itself out, which scientists say could as early as February.

But the politics are fraught for Democrats. Republicans see this as a major leverage point in this fall’s elections as it was in the Virginia governor’s race. It’s powerful because it combines a real world tangible problem (your kids aren’t in school and you have to go to work) with broader themes about the Democrats’ competence and their ties to teachers unions. If Republicans can nail down the case that Democrats aren’t competent enough to figure out how to open schools safely and that they’re keeping them closed in part to satisfy the most militant voices in teachers’ unions this is going to hurt the Dems. A lot.

Pres. Joe Biden gets it and that’s why he’s called for schools to open up. He’s backed by national union leaders. But many local unions have been taken over by more aggressive and less compromising voices. In one of the most tone deaf statements I’ve heard in a long time, here’s what John Abeigon, the Newark teachers union president had to say about all this: “I’d see the entire city of Newark unemployed before I allowed one single teacher’s aide to die needlessly.”

New York Mayor Eric Adams welcomes kids back to school on schedule last week.

Yikes. That’s an incredibly dumb thing to say. The arrogance of that statement is just beyond comprehension. And why fall into the trap of that dichotomy? Of course, nobody wants anyone to die, but why on earth put it in those terms? Maybe he was just being too honest. What matters to his union is not the kids, not the parents, not the community as a whole, but just his members.

My own view is that Democrats should distance themselves from teachers unions (but not teachers) because they cost them more in votes than they gain in money and volunteers.

New York Mayor Eric Adams has got it right. Adams, a Democrat in the bluest of cities and a mayor who actually gets to run the schools, did not hesitate to open them on time right after the holidays. “I’m not going to allow the hysteria to prevent the future of my children receiving a quality education,” Adams said on CNN.

Biden echoed him: “We have no reason to think at this point that Omicron is worse for children than previous variants,” Biden said. “We know that our kids can be safe when in school.”

Look, it’s not that the unions don’t have some legitimate arguments for keeping schools online for now. But those arguments are only marginally better than the case for opening them up. And, on the politics, the answer is clear. Open the schools.

Welcome to the 327th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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