Atlantic writer: I'm not sure I'm a Democrat anymore thanks to their awful COVID school policies

Atlantic writer: I'm not sure I'm a Democrat anymore thanks to their awful COVID school policies
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

The plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” it’s often said, but a big enough number of anecdotes does start to look data-like. How many Democrats out there are feeling the way Angie Schmitt is right now?

Schmitt writes today that she’s the sort of stalwart liberal who found herself having difficulty being civil to relatives who backed Trump in 2020. But after two years of her party not taking seriously the burden of school closures on kids and parents, she’s at wit’s end. A few days ago I catalogued the surprising number of professional liberals — people who work in politics or political media — suddenly raising objections to shutting schools amid a wave of a mild variant from which few people are dying. Those objections were polite because they had to be; if you pay your bills by catering to a liberal audience then you’ll tend to tread lightly when slaughtering their sacred cows. But rank-and-file Democratic voters don’t need to be polite about their exasperation over school closures.

So how many more Angie Schmitts are there?

The fact that her piece was published in “The Atlantic” is noteworthy in its own right. No publication has better exemplified the “safety first” mentality of well-educated liberals during the pandemic than that one has. If “The Atlantic” is now running essays begging Democrats and their labor cronies to chill out about schools, the party has a problem.

I kept hoping that someone in our all-Democratic political leadership would take a stand on behalf of Cleveland’s 37,000 public-school children or seem to care about what was happening. Weren’t Democrats supposed to stick up for low-income kids? Instead, our veteran Democratic mayor avoided remarking on the crisis facing the city’s public-school families. Our all-Democratic city council was similarly disengaged. The same thing was happening in other blue cities and blue states across the country, as the needs of children were simply swept aside. Cleveland went so far as to close playgrounds for an entire year. That felt almost mean-spirited, given the research suggesting the negligible risk of outdoor transmission—an additional slap in the face…

Compounding my fury was a complete lack of sympathy or outright hostility from my own “team.” Throughout the pandemic, Democrats have been eager to style themselves as the ones that “take the virus seriously,” which is shorthand, at least in the bluest states and cities, for endorsing the most extreme interventions. By questioning the wisdom of school closures—and taking our child out of public school—I found myself going against the party line. And when I tried to speak out on social media, I was shouted down and abused, accused of being a Trumper who didn’t care if teachers died. On Twitter, mothers who had been enlisted as unpaid essential workers were mocked, often in highly misogynistic terms. I saw multiple versions of “they’re just mad they’re missing yoga and brunch.”

Less extreme, but perhaps just as harmful to social cohesion, was the widespread refusal among rank-and-file Democrats to seriously wrestle with the costs of pandemic-mitigation efforts. Beyond the infuriating nonresponse to school closures—“kids are resilient”—the discussion regarding masks has also been oblivious at times. Research shows that good masks worn correctly can slow the spread of the coronavirus, but it’s silly to suggest that they have no drawbacks. They are uncomfortable and a barrier to communication—and that’s just for adults.

“I keep hoping that Democrats will wake up to the full range of health and social needs Americans are trying to balance right now, but that doesn’t seem likely,” Schmitt concludes. “A friend now refers to herself as ‘politically homeless,’ and more and more, that’s how I feel as well.” She’s not writing out of mere inconvenience, mind you. Schmitt says she has “long COVID” after a bout with the disease last year and that her family relies heavily on her income to make ends meet. Every minute she’s forced to devote to child care and remote learning during the day is a minute she’s not working, and working is difficult enough due to her health issues. The physical and mental burdens on parents have been understandably overlooked amid all the worries about the impact of school closures on kids, but they’re real. One new analysis found that “a full transition to remote instruction was associated with an increase of 5 to 10 points in the likelihood of parents reporting mental-health issues most days in the previous week.”

I regret to inform them that the teachers unions don’t care. In fact, in cities like New York where public schools are open, teachers are grumbling to the media that they should be remote. “We experienced hybrid learning the past two years and fully remote learning, and it worked out. So why aren’t we having a temporary pause on in-person learning, with supportive services with children with home needs?” said one occupational therapist to New York magazine, raising the question of whom she thinks remote learning “worked out” for. For teachers? Sure. For the other very important stakeholders in children’s education? Not in the slightest. Some teachers who spoke to the magazine even complained that their union isn’t “fighting” the way the one in Chicago is by prioritizing the convenience of teachers over all other considerations.

Some lefties are so exasperated by unnecessary school closures that they’ve … begun to question the wastefulness of federal spending. Ryan Cooper:

There was a lot of money available for this. Federal pandemic rescue bills contained some $190 billion in funds for schools, an average of about $1.5 million per public school explicitly earmarked for pandemic response.

So what happened? It seems most of the money disappeared into the black hole of American federalism…

In Iowa, one district spent $231,000 upgrading its outdoor stadium. A Kentucky school spent $1 million replacing its track and field facilities. A Texas school spent $5 million on a “5-acre outdoor learning environment connected to a local nature and birding center” that won’t be finished until 2024. As of September, many other districts hadn’t spent all their money yet, in part thanks to confusing federal rules.

Cooper hasn’t gone right-wing. His complaint is that the feds didn’t centralize the spending, opting instead to leave it to the discretion of corrupt local officials instead of, say, mandating upgrades to ventilation systems. But that only bolsters Schmitt’s point about the failure of Democrats at all levels of government to prioritize the welfare of children, specifically by doing everything possible to stay open. If anything, it’s Dems at the federal level who are most closely aligned with conservatives in demanding that schools not close, from Joe Biden to Rochelle Walensky to COVID czar Jeff Zients. As you go further down the chain, to governors and then mayors and then school administrators and unions, support for remote learning increases. If the dynamic were the reverse, with Biden demanding closures and local officials defying him to keep schools open, that might be easier politically for Dems since voters wouldn’t have personal grievances over closures to inform their electoral choices. As it is, November could be a bloodbath.

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