Schools are closing again. What will Biden and Democrats do?

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Probably nothing, I know. But doing nothing would be interesting and potentially politically significant in its own right.

Until recently Democrats had no incentive to stand in the way of hyper-cautious school districts and teachers unions that sought to close classrooms whenever COVID surged locally. Biden won the presidency last year running on a “safety first” platform to counter Trump’s “normalcy now” message. Gavin Newsom shut down schools in California for months and won resoundingly in the California recall election, which some liberals treated as evidence that COVID restrictions were popular nationally. Nothing is more precious to a parent than their child’s health, right? Well, Dems were looking out for the kiddies by, uh, keeping them out of class indefinitely.


But as the pandemic wore on, it became clearer even to risk-averse moms and dads that children were at little risk of serious illness from COVID. And as vaccines became freely available across the country, it became clearer that moms and dads could all but eliminate their own risk of serious illness if their kid brought the virus home to them from class. Even so, many schools still stayed closed, disrupting families for months. The reckoning came in November in Virginia when parents’ exasperation flipped a state Biden had won by 10 to Glenn Youngkin. Americans were ready for normalcy in schools again, it seemed, and blue states were no exception.

So now the interests of Democrats and their cronies have diverged. Dems need the schools to stay open but some school districts and teachers unions are still eager to go remote despite the mounting evidence that Omicron isn’t a serious threat to the vaccinated and that kids have suffered terribly from being out of class:

The American Federation of Teachers in Massachusetts released a statement on Friday morning regarding the unprecedented surge in COVID-19 within the Commonwealth.

The president of the federation Beth Kontos said, “Massachusetts public school students and their families have struggled with the uncertainty and anxiety of the COVID pandemic for two years. They have the right to know that after the holiday break they are returning to safe schools. Given the ever-increasing infection rate and the virulent behavior of the current COVID strain, we know they will not.”…

“The tests provided by the state allow for testing of all teachers and staff, and that should proceed. It should then be followed by a period of remote learning until the current wave of infections abates,” said Kontos.


Some unions have taken that a step further, threatening to strike if their schools don’t go remote…

…or organizing what appears to be a sickout to prevent schools from opening:

According to one tracker, some *2,000 schools* are preparing to go virtual for at least one day this week as the tide of Omicron rises nationally. And if they do, it won’t be the Republican Party that pays the price. “The Democrats’ Education Lunacies Will Bring Back Trump,” Matt Taibbi warned last week, a fear many Dems doubtless quietly share in the aftermath of the Virginia debacle. And so Biden, his administration, and his party have come to a crossroads: How hard do they want to push back against the pressure to close schools again? Are they prepared to pick a fight with the unions and the public education bureaucracy to signal to parents that they’re on their side?

The message from Team Biden on the Sunday shows yesterday was that schools should stay open during Omicron — if possible:


What’s at stake? For kids, a lot. A study from Europe, where schools closed only briefly last year, found that even short interruptions in classroom time can have outsized effects on learning:

One country where testing continued, though, was the Netherlands. When the pandemic first hit, Dutch students participated in virtual learning for eight weeks before their school buildings reopened. Per Engzell, a researcher at Oxford University’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, says those weeks were a waste in terms of academic learning.

“What we learned from our study is that children learned basically nothing at home,” Engzell said. “And it’s clear that this learning loss has not been completely recovered, even now, one and a half years later.”

He found in his April 2021 study that elementary students performed on average 20 percent worse on tests than the equivalent cohorts had for the three years before the pandemic. Among students from less-advantaged families, learning losses tended to be even greater — up to 60 percent larger than for the general population. The Netherlands has spent billions on tutoring, counseling and summer programming for children, but that extra support has not yet caught them up.


They were out of class for eight weeks and saw that much damage. Some of our kids were out for a year. The bill is coming due.

Biden would be wise to keep his eye on New York’s new mayor, who won a competitive primary by promising to be a different kind of Democrat. Eric Adams wants more police, a business-friendly climate for his city, and public schools to remain open despite the Omicron surge.

Adams is looking to make his mark early. A showdown with the unions to keep kids in class would be a smart political play and would establish him as one of his party’s few fearless centrists.

There’s just one catch. How many schools in NYC and across the U.S. are at risk of closing because teachers won’t work and how many are at risk of closing because they can’t work? Remember what Michael “Dr. Doom” Osterholm said last week about the difficulty of keeping everyday life functioning this month as the insanely infectious new COVID variant sickens tens of millions of people simultaneously. The CDC shortened its recommended quarantine period for the same reason, because it expects that so many Americans will test positive for Omicron that asking them to isolate for 10 days instead of five would bring industries to their knees. That can happen with school staffs too, of course:


It’s one thing for Adams, Biden, and other Dems to ask teachers to get back to class if they’re afraid to work. It’s another thing to ask them to get back to class if 30-40 percent of them have fevers, aches, sore throats, and are highly contagious to those around them. In some cases, a sickout among school staff might legitimately be due to the staff getting sick all at once. What do schools and their students do then?

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