Politico

Opinion | How School Closures Made Me Question My Progressive Politics


June 26, 2020, was the day I went public with just how angry I was about my son’s school closing down for Covid, and my life hasn’t been the same since.

I had begun to sense a difference between my own feelings and those of my mom’s text group, which included nine of us whose kids had gone to preschool together since they were 2 years old; the kids were 8 at the time. These were the parents of my son’s closest friends. We even had a name for our group, the “mamigas”— as most of us were either Latinas or married to Latinos and shared a commitment to bilingual education.

I tweeted, “Does anyone else feel enraged at the idea that you’ll be homeschooling in the fall full-time? Cuz my moms group text is in full-blown acceptance mode and it bugs the shit out of me.” I didn’t know it yet, but this would be my first foray into school reopening advocacy, which eventually included helping lead a group of Oakland parents in pushing the school district to be more transparent about the process of reopening (particularly in negotiations with the teachers union) and writing several pieces on the topic.

I probably should have inferred that becoming a school-reopening advocate would not go over well in my progressive Oakland community, but I didn’t anticipate the social repercussions, or the political identity crisis it would trigger for me. My own experience, as a self-described progressive in ultra-lefty Oakland, is just one example of how people across the political spectrum have become frustrated with Democrats’ position on school reopenings.

Parents who advocated for school reopening were repeatedly demonized on social media as racist and mischaracterized as Trump supporters. Members of the parent group I helped lead were consistently attacked on Twitter and Facebook by two Oakland moms with ties to the teachers union. They labelled advocates’ calls for schools reopening “white supremacy” called us “Karens,” and even bizarrely claimed we had allied ourselves with Marjorie Taylor Greene’s transphobic agenda.

There was no recognition of the fact that we were advocating for our kids, who were floundering in remote learning, or that public schools across the country (in red states) opened in fall 2020 without major outbreaks, as did private schools just miles from our home. Only since last fall, when schools reopened successfully despite the more contagious Delta variant circulating, have Democratic pundits and leaders been talking about school closures as having caused far more harm than benefit.

Some progressive parents now admit they were too afraid of the blowback from their communities to speak up. And they were right to be wary. We paid a price.

So did Democrats, even if they didn’t realize it until later, or still don’t. Glenn Youngkin’s surprise gubernatorial win in Virginia in November was a wake-up call for the party. As has been recognized, Youngkin’s focus on school-related issues, especially after Terry McAuliffe made a dismissive remark about parents, was an effective tactic. Still, all over Twitter I saw progressives denying that parent anger at prolonged school closures was a major issue in that election — they claimed it was all about anti-critical race theory sentiment, despite research showing school pandemic policies were more to blame. Even more disturbing, as evidenced in the comments on a recent tweet by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), is that many still believe shutting down schools for a year or more was justified.

Some unions and districts are now using last year’s closures as a precedent. Recently, with the Omicron surge, several major school districts announced they were switching to remote learning for a week or more, including Newark and dozens of other New Jersey districts, Ann Arbor and Cleveland. Then last week, the Chicago teachers union voted for a sickout, followed by teachers in San Francisco and Oakland engaging in similar actions.

Spring 2020 had been a disaster for my son when his school in the Oakland Unified School District switched to emergency remote learning. He had recently been diagnosed with ADHD and did not do well with me at home — he often flatly refused to do any work. Although I saw a range of reactions by teachers to emergency remote learning that spring, and know that some went to great lengths to keep their students engaged, my son’s teacher only met with the kids one-on-one on Zoom for 15 minutes a week. Beyond that, parents were given worksheets to do with our kids; there was no actual instruction that spring.

When the new school year began in August 2020, Oakland provided only fully remote instruction. My incredibly bright but impulsive son found the temptation of having a computer screen in front of him irresistible — and would often open other windows or try to surf the internet.

By January 2021, with my son increasingly disengaged as Zoom school dragged on and no hope of an imminent return to school in Oakland, I promised him I wouldn’t make him go through another year like this. I knew that he desperately needed to learn alongside other kids.

I had until then resisted my dad’s suggestion that I consider sending him to private school. I was a proud alumna of San Francisco public schools and planned for my kids to attend Oakland public schools, despite their reputation for behavioral and academic problems. As an interracial, bilingual/bicultural family, what we wanted was for our son to attend a dual-language immersion program with plenty of other kids of color. My family was also in no way able to pay for private school.

But I began to fear that even in-person school in fall 2021 was at risk because of the impossible demands of the teachers union (that schools remain fully remote until there were “near-zero” Covid cases in Oakland) and apathy of the school board and district; even after teachers were prioritized for vaccination, there was no urgency to get kids back to the classroom. My dad offered to help pay for private school, and we applied. In March we were notified that my son was admitted to a private dual-language immersion school, and that we had been granted a 75 percent scholarship. There was still no deal in place between Oakland’s school district and the union to return to in-person school. I had lost all faith in the decision-makers to do what was best for my kid. So I made the only logical decision.

Even then, I feared what fellow parents might think of me. I’m well aware of the stereotypes of white parents choosing the private-school option when the going gets tough at public schools. I told myself that prioritizing being a “good leftist” at the expense of my son’s well-being wasn’t good parenting, but as a red-diaper baby myself, the white guilt dies hard. My own parents had sent me to an elementary school with a huge majority of Black and Pacific Islander students; while many might assume the white parents documented in the New York Times podcast “Nice White Parents” were pioneers, my parents reverse-integrated me into a “failing” school 40 years ago. Sending my kid to private school was accompanied by a lot of angst.

My fears were amplified by the backlash I and other school reopening advocates had faced throughout the school year, particularly on social media. There were a range of insults lobbed at us: We were bad parents who didn’t care about our own kids or teachers dying, we only wanted our babysitters back and our frustrations about school closures were an example of “white supremacy.” Los Angeles teachers union head Cecily Myart-Cruz stated that reopening schools was “a recipe for propagating structural racism.”

It’s thus not surprising that high-profile progressives who dared call out teachers unions quickly backed off. 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones was mildly critical of unions in spring 2020, noting that some teachers were saying their contracts didn’t require them to teach remotely (the same argument my son’s teacher was making). She ended up issuing an apology. However, she also defended her right to criticize public servants regardless of their political leanings: “I will no more act as if teachers are above criticism because of the profession they chose than I would police.” Last week, she tweeted again about the Omicron-related school closures, pointing to the harms of remote learning, and was once more subjected to contempt and called a teacher-hating corporate shill.

While many Black, Latino and Asian parents felt similarly about wanting their kids back in the classroom, their voices were swept under the rug as union representatives continually claimed only “rich white parents” wanted schools reopened. The irony of the accusations of racism launched mostly at white moms, but also occasionally at parents of color, is that most often they have come from fellow white women who purport to represent the views Black and Latino parents.

Cleveland journalist Angie Schmitt, who recently wrote about her own political shift prompted by school closures, told me a white neighbor/teacher called her a “nice white parent” — code, after the Times podcast, for a liberal white parent who unintentionally perpetuates racial inequalities in schools — after she began advocating for school reopening. Ironically, the neighbor’s own child was attending in-person daycare at the time, Schmitt said. She added that many friends privately agreed with her but weren’t willing to go public about it: “It really hurt my feelings because my kids actually had corona and it was no big deal, but when I would try to explain that to people they were a little bit hostile to it.”

She saw “anti-racist” parents talking about micro-aggressions and completely ignoring school closures. “I would lie awake so many nights mad about what was happening to us and distressed and angry at my friends,” she told me. In addition to dealing with symptoms of long Covid, she said, “my friends were gaslighting me. It really has changed me and my worldview a lot.”

New York-based historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela also experienced backlash. “Several acquaintances accused me of hating teachers and not caring about children’s health, a strange claim given I began my career as a public-school teacher [and] am still an educator,” she told me. “One friend stopped talking to me completely.” Like Schmitt, she received DMs from colleagues who were privately supportive but didn’t feel they could speak up “since the strange politics of the pandemic had made advocating for the importance of public education a reactionary position.”

University of California, Berkeley professor Mark Brilliant, a reopening advocate in Berkeley, spoke about having to reevaluate his “ideological priors” when he saw Democratically controlled states like California — where teachers unions are particularly powerful — failing to reopen schools. “Science, public education, public institutions, equity? Like if those aren’t things that mobilize people who profess to be progressive, I don’t know what are,” he told me by phone last spring. “It’s been just a source of tremendous pain, disenchantment, disillusionment that people didn’t just rise up and say, ‘No, this is unacceptable.’”

It is this deep sense of alienation that neither Democrats nor the mainstream media has reckoned with — at least until the gubernatorial election in Virginia.

But we’d already been seeing the effects. In California, I saw Democratic parents supporting the effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom. And while he did eventually beat back the recall, support for it among parents was far higher than among non-parents. Many of us believe his victory was due much more to his leading opponent being Larry Elder (essentially Trump 2.0), than to enthusiasm for Newsom.

Even so, I know at least a few liberal parents voted to recall Newsom because of his inaction on school reopening, and that many of them wanted a Democratic alternative. And if we feel betrayed by Democrats, I can only imagine how easy it was for those in the center and in redder areas of the state to ditch the party entirely.

In the longer term, many of us believe the pandemic-related myopia will devastate public education by alienating parents.

The pandemic, and the school-reopening debate in particular, has thrown me into an ideological mid-life crisis, questioning all my prior political assumptions. I’m still attempting to hold onto the progressive label while calling out the policies I see as antithetical to it, but the longer fellow progressives support new school closures and other policies that restrict kids’ lives in order to allay the anxieties of adults, and have been shown to cause far more harm than benefit, the more alienated I feel.

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Lisa

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