School closures haunt Democrats as frustrated parents cast their votes

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WASHINGTON — The father was furious. “Figure it out, or get off the podium,” he shouted at school board members in Loudoun County, Va.

He was not irate about critical race theory, which would come to dominate the state’s gubernatorial race, with the Northern Virginia exurbs at the center of that battle over how to teach history in schools. His anger did not stem from debates about which bathrooms transgender students should use. Those heated battles were still months away. It was January 2021, and what the screaming father wanted was more immediate and concrete.

He sought the end of remote learning.

“It’s not a high bar,” he shouted at the school board members sitting before him. “Raise the freaking bar.”

Remote learning had relegated children across Virginia — and much of the rest of the country — to attend classes via Zoom since the previous March, when the coronavirus had first transformed living rooms and bedrooms into the new American classroom. Parents struggled to balance the demands of work while also playing the new role of remote learning instructor.

Parents at a Loudoun County School Board meeting.
A Loudoun County school board meeting in June was halted because the crowd refused to quiet down. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Most parents never grew as publicly and floridly enraged as the father berating educators in Loudoun County. But conversations with Republicans and Democrats, parents and educators, found a hangover from school closures intertwining with other education-related issues, leading voters to punish elected officials they associated with those policies, which also included revisions to gifted programs, limits on the reach of law enforcement in school and curriculum updates.

For the most part, it was Democrats who paid the price last Tuesday, even if they didn’t explicitly support controversial educational approaches. Whether parental anger informs the 2022 midterms will be a key question in the coming year.

In Virginia, the anger over education culminated on Election Day with Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin’s decisive victory in the increasingly blue state. A financial industry executive with no political experience, Youngkin defeated former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who sought to make the race about former President Donald Trump. Republicans nearly won in New Jersey too, a Democratic redoubt where challenger Jack Ciattarelli nearly unseated incumbent Phil Murphy.

The New Jersey close call may actually be more shocking than the Virginia loss, because the state was never thought to be in play. Even though Murphy did survive, an unknown truck driver who barely raised any money, Edward Durr, defeated Democratic powerhouse Stephen Sweeney in the state senate. On a night of surprises, this may have been the biggest. As one voter told the New York Times, she endorsed Durr because she felt that Sweeney “could have stepped up” and fought to oppose the school shutdowns sooner — but didn’t.

“There is never one factor to explain an election,” says a senior staffer for a Democratic member of the New Jersey congressional delegation, speaking anonymously in order to offer his frank assessment of the election. “Still parental fury at school closings and slow vaccine approval was a cannon aimed by the suburbs at the party in power.”

A 7-year-old does her school work using an iPad.
A 7-year-old does her school work at a Boys & Girls Club in Reading, Pa., that provided a location for remote learning. (Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

Certainly, plenty of other factors contributed to the Democratic shellacking on Election Day. President Biden’s domestic agenda was stalled in Congress as voters went to the polls, with a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package passing just days after McAuliffe’s defeat. As one senior staffer on McAuliffe’s campaign dryly noted, passage of that same bill three weeks ago would have been “helpful.” And by dint of geography, Washington gridlock can play a particularly outsize role in Virginia, which overlaps with the district’s media market. Thousands of federal employees, contractors and lobbyists make Virginia their home, meaning that dysfunction on Pennsylvania Avenue can be keenly felt on Snickersville Turnpike.

Then there were supply chain disruptions, the Delta variant and rising gas prices. But because school closures came so early, and because their effect rippled through so many other sectors of society, shuttered classrooms became a potent symbol of the pandemic, a nexus of complex feelings.

In many of the regions where schools stayed closed, so did offices and, to a lesser extent, restaurants. Keeping schools remote indicated that society remained in a state of emergency. But as the fall of 2021 approached, that sense of emergency became as wearing for some as the emergency itself.

Failure to grasp that exhaustion — not just with schooling but pandemic restrictions as a whole — appears to have badly damaged Democrats, who had endorsed such restrictions while Trump was president.

“That was the biggest referendum I have ever seen on the fear-based response of the Democrats and school closures,” University of California at San Francisco infectious disease specialist Dr. Monica Gandhi told Yahoo News. “The reign of COVID extremism is over.”

Schools are open now, in Loudoun County and elsewhere, but the reopening feels tenuous and tinged with anxiety. Some had hoped for a celebratory mood in September, but the arrival of the Delta variant and persistent political squabbling all but ensured that no such jubilation ever materialized.

A Glenn Youngkin supporter puts signs up.
A Glenn Youngkin supporter puts signs up before a Loudoun County school board meeting in Ashburn, Va. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

So even as schools stay open, a new round of closures remains an all-too-real possibility, especially as the weather becomes colder and it becomes more difficult to conduct some activities outdoors.

Youngkin, the unlikely governor-elect of Virginia, didn’t talk about school closures on his way to defeating McAuliffe. He didn’t need to. Although schools opened in the fall, resentment and fear simmered under the surface. “We never advertised on closing schools,” a top staffer on the Youngkin campaign told Yahoo News. “We communicated as a potential threat that it could happen again with McAullife.”

In an inadvertent endorsement of that argument, two Virginia districts announced just days before the election — and with little warning — that schools would let out early on Wednesdays so teachers could have a “breather.” Teachers had once been regarded as pandemic heroes, but months of school on Zoom had eroded that support. “Oh, please,” the conservative radio host Kerry Dougherty wrote after Richmond made a similar announcement about giving teachers extra time off. “They sat home for more than a year, and two consecutive months of in-person teaching is wearing educators out?”

Youngkin certainly made education a central issue of the campaign, but closures served as the foundation of his argument more than the argument itself. His campaign gained traction with parents by objecting vociferously to critical race theory, a graduate-level discipline that examines the role of systemic racism in shaping American institutions. His campaign even ran an ad against the teaching of a novel that contains sex and violence.

These claims were rightly dismissed as fatuous: Critical race theory is not part of the Virginia school curriculum, and the novel, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” is universally regarded as canonical. Yet the messaging was clear: Glenn Youngkin is on the side of frustrated parents, whatever their frustrations may be.

Opponents of critical race theory protest outside of the Loudoun County school board headquarters.
Opponents of teaching critical race theory protest outside of the Loudoun County school board headquarters in Ashburn, Va., in June. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

New Jersey and Virginia have divergent histories and are today subject to different political pressures, but they do have one thing in common: Both states kept their schools closed longer than most other states. The data analytics site Burbio, which tracks school closures and reopenings, rated Virginia 44th on its in-person learning index for the 2020-21 school year. New Jersey was 41st.

“Virginia’s schools were overwhelmingly virtual from September 2020 through late February and early March 2021, and many only returned in hybrid format even as the year ended,” Burbio co-founder Dennis Roche wrote in an email to Yahoo News. “New Jersey schools had the lowest in-person index of any Northeast state. Many urban districts in the state remained virtual until the late Spring.”

When schools first closed across the country in the spring of 2020, there was little disagreement about the propriety of that decision. Little was known about how coronavirus affected children, and any risk was understandably considered too great when it came to the safety of children. Besides, most everyone figured classrooms would be opened soon enough.

They didn’t, however. By the summer, then-President Trump began to push for a reopening that fall. His endorsement had the predictable effect of driving Democrats and progressives to embrace remote learning, even though the science was, in fact, on his side.

The racial justice protests of summer 2020 imbued the reopening debate with an extra layer of significance. Seemingly every major institution was undergoing introspection and scrutiny, and public education was no exception.

President Biden speaks at the White House.
President Biden speaks at the White House on the authorization of the COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

None of this necessarily had to be damaging to Democrats, many of whom could articulate reopening schools as part of a broader equity agenda: After all, poor children and children of color are far more likely to have been harmed by remote learning than are children who are wealthy or white. Working-class parents were, and still are, far more likely to have jobs that require leaving the house every day. Those same parents are least able to afford the kind of expensive child care needed to keep young children from being left alone.

But the broader discussion of education and equity crashed in the fall of 2021 into a right-wing push to brand any discussion of race in schools as “critical race theory.” To make matters even worse for Democrats, this happened to be the moment when parents were more focused on their kids’ educations than they had been in generations.

“Without 18 months of school closures, parents aren’t in their child’s classrooms, at school board meetings and paying attention to counties they don’t even live in,” says Rory Cooper, a Northern Virginia political strategist who also became a reopening advocate after watching his own children go through remote learning. “Parents didn’t like what they saw and then were dumbfounded by how hostile the school systems were to them.”

Parents’ collective discontent is part of what led to the kinds of stunning results that emerged from New Jersey and Virginia last week. Since then, progressives have labored to point out that a third grade teacher is unlikely to tackle critical race theory before recess. True as that may be, it fails to acknowledge that conservative activists had been perfectly explicit in their desire to claim critical race theory was at work whenever a parent, student or educator raised a race-related matter.

“CRT has added to the firestorm,” Christy Hudson, who heads the Fairfax County Parents Association, told Yahoo News, “but those issues didn’t drive this election. In reality, parents being shut out by our local school boards and state leaders is what caused the swing. A genuine grassroots movement of parents crossed political lines to advocate for the best interests of kids. Parents, not partisans, are responsible for the outcome of this election.”

Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin.
Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin tosses a signed basketball to supporters at an election night party in Chantilly, Va. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

In other words — at least in this telling — the critical race theory debate was never actually about critical race theory itself.

“CRT became a stand-in for education, the way that ‘defund police’ became a stand-in for systemic racism,” former Republican operative Sarah Isgur, who now works as a writer for the Dispatch, told Yahoo News.

Isgur predicted that the anger over education was not going away anytime soon, comparing it to another divisive issue that has marked American politics for a half-century.

“Education is the new abortion,” she says.

Schools remained a complex, intractable problem, while also symbolizing all the other intractable problems the pandemic had caused. “The extraordinary circumstance of more than a year of remote learning has almost certainly affected political sensibilities, and across the ideological spectrum,” says Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a historian of American education and culture who is also a parent.

She says it was a grave mistake for progressives to dismiss parents angry at remote learning as entitled “wine moms” or Karens using their white privilege as a cudgel against educators.

Republican strategist Douglas Heye says he traveled to his native New Jersey in the winter of 2020 and was struck at the discontent over remote learning. New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the country and, as a consequence, lavishly funded schools. Yet the urgency of opening those schools was absent, which struck Heye as a disaster in the making.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe at his election night rally in McLean, Va. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Many liberals correctly figured that schools would be open by fall 2021. What they didn’t grasp is that reopening would not wipe away the memories of remote school.

“There is still that residual effect. Parents are angry,” Heye says. “Everyone blew it off.”

Before education became a Republican issue, it ceased being a Democratic one. “When it came to education, we were feeling the effects of what has happened in this past year and a half. A lot of that had to do with COVID,” says McAuliffe spokeswoman Christina Freundlich.

Youngkin won the Republican primary on May 10, beating out a field heavily skewed to Trumpian sympathies. Opponents immediately cast him as a right-wing extremist, though the former Rice University basketball player showed little evidence of a MAGA temperament.

McAuliffe misread the moment, campaigning on an anti-Trump platform focused on the new abortion law in Texas, which he argued Youngkin would import into Virginia. He sought to nationalize the race, as Gov. Gavin Newsom had done in California only weeks before when facing a recall effort he managed to easily deflect.

Newsom had been lucky; his top challenger was Larry Elder, who channeled Trump in many respects and alienated Californians by doing so. Youngkin, on the other hand, came off like a suburban dad with an acute interest in lawn care. Trump repeatedly endorsed Youngkin via press releases (his preferred medium since being expelled from Twitter) but never came to Virginia to back the GOP nominee, despite Democrats trying to goad him into the race.

Vice President Kamala Harris.
Vice President Kamala Harris at a campaign rally for Terry McAuliffe in Norfolk, Va., in October. (Kyle Mazza/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and former President Barack Obama all came to Virginia to campaign for McAuliffe, continuing to nationalize a race where local issues were the top concern. “Take a look at what’s happening in Texas,” Harris said during an event in McLean, one of the wealthiest suburbs in the nation, where six- or seven-figure salaries made private school an easy recourse.

McAuliffe’s campaign suffered a major blow during a Sept. 29 debate with Youngkin when he asserted: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” a comment that Republicans seized and distributed.

“It was not a gaffe,” Heye says, but a genuine expression of what McAuliffe believed. Indeed, the seasoned Democratic politician defended his remarks, arguing that parents had no business dictating curriculum.

To his credit, McAuliffe appeared to be operating on genuine conviction, however politically unhelpful that ultimately turned out to be. He recognized that, in the conservative media ecosystem, critical race theory had attained a kind of mythic import he could hardly dispel.

“Our children’s education, particularly in the pandemic — that is an emotional argument, but we tried to make a logical one,” Freundlich says, referencing the critical race theory outcry that could well persist into the 2022 congressional midterm elections. “Logic worked last year with the pandemic, with Joe Biden running on the side of science. What we’re facing is so much bigger.”

Glenn Youngkin.
Glenn Youngkin gives a speech on the opposition to critical race theory in Loudoun County schools. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

What if McAuliffe had acknowledged the pain remote learning had caused? It’s impossible to say what may have been, but critics believe more empathy would have helped.

“Parents have felt gaslighted because the problems they see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears are being called imaginary by the same people who locked their kids out of schools,” says Cooper, the Northern Virginia political consultant and reopening advocate.

On the final day of the campaign, as his looming loss was coming into focus, McAuliffe campaigned with Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, a union that had frustrated attempts at reopening schools for much of the previous 19 months.

Heye, the Republican strategist, was mystified by that decision. “If Youngkin wins, he ought to send flowers to Randi Weingarten,” he told Yahoo News he remembers thinking as he watched them campaigning together onstage.

“I think it is about the agita people feel right now, and parents feel very disempowered,” Weingarten told Yahoo News in a text message. A subsequent question about whether Weingarten felt any responsibility for that “agita” was met with a plain answer: “Of course I do.”

Schools may never have to close again as they had to for much of 2020. Childhood vaccinations became available shortly after the polls closed in Virginia. New coronavirus treatments are on their way too. Those are clearly encouraging signs. Less clear, though, is how much the memory of the last two years will inform voters’ choices in the future.

If the trauma of the pandemic is as profound as some psychiatrists and public health experts say it is, the ramifications of school closures, lockdowns, mask mandates and other measures could inform our politics for years to come.

More than anything, Virginia may have been evidence that candidates who grasp and acknowledge the exhaustion and exasperation of the American populace may benefit from doing so.