Schools open, and so does a political wedge for Republicans

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WASHINGTON — School closures dropped markedly over the long weekend, as the Omicron-fueled coronavirus surge appears to have abated in many parts of the nation. Still, thousands of schools remain closed, prolonging a complex crisis that continues to pose educational, economic and — increasingly — political challenges, as the coronavirus frustrates attempts to return to pre-pandemic modes of learning.

The vast majority of schools are now open to in-person education, as the White House was quick to highlight on Tuesday. “Forty-six percent of schools were open a year ago; now over 95 percent,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a news briefing.

Whereas more than 6,000 schools were closed last week, 1,812 started this week without students in classrooms, according to data science firm Burbio, which tracks school reopenings. The trend is encouraging for educators, elected leaders and parents who have insisted that remote learning is an insufficient substitute for traditional schooling.

Students walking toward an elementary school.
Students return to A.N. Pritzker elementary school in Chicago on Jan. 12 after a six-day break from in-person learning. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“But that number has gone up since then,” Burbio chief executive Dennis Roche told Yahoo News in an email, describing how his staff worked over the weekend to track a spate of closures announced on Thursday and Friday. “There are still disruptions occurring.”

As the Omicron wave moved on from the metropolitan centers of the Northeast and Upper Midwest, so did accompanying disruptions to school. Schools across north Texas closed for all or part of the rest of the week, citing, as one district did, an “inability to fill critical instructional and operational positions” because of infections among staff.

Idaho closed some schools too. “This is the highest rate of illness we have seen so far this year,” educators there wrote.

The superintendent in Wichita, Kan., cited an “an incredible rise in numbers” as schools there decided to close for the rest of the week.

Minneapolis has moved to remote learning for the rest of January, citing “a significant reduction in staff available to work in person due to COVID 19,” while Salt Lake City’s schools decided to move to remote for the rest of the week. Educators there had planned to implement a test-to-stay strategy endorsed by the Biden administration but were unable to do so “due to lack of health department resources,” a likely reference to rapid diagnostic tests that remain difficult to find, especially in bulk.

The new year began with Chicago teachers refusing to return to the classroom until a host of safety concerns were addressed. While that crisis has been resolved, schools are continuing to close, most often not because of union resistance but simply because teachers and staff are testing positive for the coronavirus.

A health care worker collects a nasal swab sample from a young boy.
A health care worker administers a COVID test for 5-year-old Gabriel Govea at a testing site in El Paso, Texas, on Jan. 12. (Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images)

Even the most vocal advocates for reopening schools acknowledged that this new round of closures is bound to be temporary. “Those schools will reopen,” educator and reopening activist Karen Vaites told Yahoo News in a phone interview. “If you can’t run your buses, you can’t open your schools.”

A White House official told Yahoo News that “the President has been steadfast in his prioritization of keeping schools open safely since day one,” citing the effort to ensure that teachers were vaccinated early in the inoculation effort. He also cited the $130 billion that schools received in last year’s coronavirus relief bill. “We’ve been on the side of getting schools safely open for a year now, and we are not walking away from this core goal,” the White House official said.

Yet allies of the Biden administration are growing concerned that even if schools remain open, the reopening has been too halting and precarious to declare victory. Some believe that education will emerge as a top concern in the 2022 midterms, now only nine months away.

“Schools have become a new front in the culture wars, and if Democrats aren’t strategic, they’ll end up in politically perilous territory,” Jonathan Cowan, founder of the centrist think tank Third Way, told Yahoo News in an email. “It’s not just critical race theory and efforts to abolish merit programs, but school closures have become a major concern for parents. It’s imperative that Democrats strongly back keeping schools open unless it is absolutely impossible to do so, and they will have to do as Chicago’s mayor did and be willing to make sure kids and parents are the first priority.”

A Chicago Teachers Union supporter holding a poster that reads: Keep teachers safe
The Chicago Teachers Union and its supporters participated in a car caravan around City Hall on Jan. 10 to protest against in-person learning. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Recently on the defensive for their insistence that schools stay closed until late into the 2020-21 school year, teachers’ unions have taken to pointing out that they can’t do anything about a highly transmissible coronavirus variant — Omicron — especially in districts where masking is discouraged or, in some cases, explicitly forbidden.

“Teachers are supporting students in every way they can, while trying to keep everyone healthy. They are exhausted, overwhelmed, stressed and burning out,” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten wrote recently on Twitter.

Still, the reality is that 2022 has opened with school not resembling normal in any sense of the word in many parts of the country. That included the northern Virginia suburbs, where school districts are resisting the state’s new governor, Glenn Youngkin, in deciding to keep children masked in schools. Youngkin signed an executive order on Saturday — his first day in office — that prevented school districts from making masking mandatory.

Psaki, whose children attend school in northern Virginia, tweeted in support of their school district's announcement that it would resist Youngkin’s order and keep kids in masks, reviving a culture war that seems to have no end — and could have enormous consequences politically. A previously unknown finance executive, Youngkin used Virginia’s especially prolonged school closures to harness parent frustrations on his way to an unlikely victory.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki gestures while standing at a podium.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki at the daily briefing on Tuesday. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Vaites, the educator and reopening activist, says she has seen fellow Democrats leave the party over its handling of school closures. “School closures are the ultimate kitchen table issue,” she says. A loss of confidence in schools, she believes, has led to a more widespread “loss of trust in officials.”

That development could benefit Republicans, even if schools are open come November. “I want the Democrats to get their shit together,” Vaites told Yahoo News. “Reopen the schools and normalize life for people.”

How are vaccination rates affecting the latest COVID surge? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.