Some Democrats Changing Tune on Closing Schools Amid Omicron COVID Surge

Amid teachers' safety concerns about returning to in-person instruction amid the surging COVID-19 pandemic, Democrats have increasingly begun to push for schools to remain open.

It is a balancing act for many politicians, as students not returning to school has angered parents, but forcing in-person learning has upset several teachers unions.

Most notably, in Chicago, many union members refused to come back to their schools, closing them for several days in what Mayor Lori Lightfoot called an "illegal walkout." Then Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker helped obtain rapid tests to ease teachers' concerns. The conflict ended with an agreement between the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public School Monday.

Brian Stryker, a Chicago-based Democratic pollster, said the teacher strike might have been a turning point for some Democrats.

"When you tell a parent that their kid can't be in school — a lot of times politics doesn't touch people's lives, but that's a massive impact on parents' lives that pisses them off," Stryker asid. "The Chicago strike may be the moment when Democrats said: 'Enough. We're done with all these.'"

The Biden administration has been attempting to tackle the issue as well, with the White House announcing Wednesday it would provide more testing for schools to try to keep them open during Omicron spikes.

Louisville, Kentucky, elementary school
Democrats have increasingly begun to push for schools to remain open despite COVID-19 surges. Above, a teacher walks through an empty classroom during a period of Non-Traditional Instruction at Hazelwood Elementary School on Jan. 11 in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images

The political peril for Democrats became clear after their candidate lost the Virginia governor's race in November to a Republican who focused on education and slammed the prior year's school closures. Now, in what already promises to be a tough midterm election year, with frustrations mounting among their base over stalled voting and spending legislation, they may face real trouble over an issue that directly affects Americans' lives.

But some teachers have been feeling left out in the cold.

John Coneglio, head of the Columbus, Ohio, Education Association, said Omicron has sickened so many teachers that students aren't learning in overcrowded classrooms. The union has called for two weeks of remote learning. Still, none of the Democratic-voting city's leaders has backed the union.

"I think their silence speaks," Coneglio said. "We're hoping our local politicians see this is a citywide problem, and that sticking your head in the sand and saying, 'It's on you guys to solve this,' isn't fair."

At the same time, Democrats are cognizant of the concerns of parents such as Megan Bacigalupi, who quit her job at a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit last year to help her two young children deal with the hassles of remote learning. She's since founded a group, CA Parent Power, to push to keep schools open.

"Overwhelmingly, Democratic parents are quite willing to vote for an independent or a Republican in November," said Bacigalupi, who just changed her registration from Democrat to unaffiliated and said she's never voted Republican in her life. "Two years in, it doesn't feel like we are in a place where our worldview won't be shaped by COVID policies."

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the recent story of schools and COVID-19 is a triumph. She contrasted last winter, when as many as 45 percent of the nation's schools were closed during a surge, to now, when vaccinations are widespread and 98 percent of schools are open despite even higher COVID-19 caseloads.

"That shows remarkable strength and courage and fortitude on behalf of teachers and paraprofessionals," Weingarten said. "Omicron is the enemy, not each other."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that schools can remain safe when proper protocols are followed, including observing safe distancing, wearing masks and getting vaccinated.

"Schools should be the first places to open and the last places to close," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a Senate hearing Tuesday.

The vast majority of schools are still in-person, and most switches to remote learning are happening on a case-by-case basis as the virus sickens too many teachers. The few switches to remote learning that have happened, in places such as Prince George's County in Maryland, are only supposed to last a couple of weeks, at the peak of the Omicron variant spread. But parent activists don't trust the districts to return promptly.

"The idea that these numbers are going to drop precipitously in the next two to four weeks, I think, is a dubious prospect," said Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, which supports charter schools and has opposed the return to virtual learning. "I think this is a very slippery slope."

Stryker said Biden has been clear on the issue, "but I don't think we've heard it trickle down in the Democratic Party enough."

That's damaging, he said, not because voters identify the party with teachers unions, one of its biggest backers, but because they see Democrats as being stuck in the past when it comes to virus safety.

"It's voters thinking we're still living in 2020," Stryker said.

Democratic politicians seem to be getting the message. In Nevada on Tuesday, the Clark County School District, which includes Las Vegas, announced that its schools would take extra days off over the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, returning to classes the following Wednesday, because of Omicron. The state's Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, quickly tweeted his reaction.

"I know many parents and families will be disappointed with the Clark County School District's decision," Sisolak wrote. "Let me be clear, I am absolutely committed to keeping schools open for in-person learning and keeping our students, educators and staff safe."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.