Schools may be a local issue, but how they are run—especially during the pandemic—can stoke the outrage politics that define many state and national races. Democrats, to their grief, learned as much in November when Republican Glenn Youngkin thumped a former Democratic governor by harping on the disastrous performance of the state’s schools when COVID-19 hit. On a snowy day, I received a refresher.
We are proud parents to twin boys in second grade who attend a local public school. My wife and me were both enrolled as teachers at the great school. Our children both attended public schools. We deeply support their mission. As Charlottesville’s Mayor, one of my greatest achievements was allocating greater budgets.
However, we shared the awful experience of seeing how schools were run in Virginia since COVID-19. We received the news that schools were closing the following day, in the early 2020s. The schools were closed. There were no messages, none of the instructional materials or any other information. We received an email with a list containing web resources which we could schedule and access on our own. Teachers eventually scheduled Zoom calls on a weekly basis, although these calls consisted of students randomly saying hello for thirty minutes. They were again closed Fridays in 2021 when schools returned to school in-person.
We learned about the effect of these decisions last fall during parent-teacher meetings, when our beloved teachers told us the vast majority of kids in Charlottesville’s schools were behind in basics like reading, writing, and math. National research found that closing schools increases the chance of increasing educational disparities in poorer families or children with disabilities. It also leads to increased anxiety and loneliness among these kids, as well as child stress, depression, anger, indiscipline and hyperactivity.
The confounding illogic of the “shut-down” approach and the deterioration on kids’ learning, drove thousands of independent and even Democratic parents to vote for Youngkin over former governor Terry McAuliffe,
McAuliffe was referring to policies that would permit parents to take books found offensive from schools. But his comment was swiftly interpreted as a broader indifference to Virginia parents’ frustration with schools in general, as seen in a post-election CNN interview of four suburban moms who had voted for Youngkin, three of whom had previously voted for Joe Biden. One described how Democrats dismissed any mention of schools as “phony, trumped-up culture wars” as “very tone-deaf, very dismissive.” Another said, “We were really concerned about our kids’ education, and the Democrats were not listening to that,” and warned, “You’re going to keep losing unless you pay attention.”
Which brings us to January, a punishing winter storm, and power outages that extended schools’ scheduled three-week winter break, in Charlottesville, by four days, even though schools had power after two.
The very idea of a “snow day,” when the entire school system shutters (along with its core mission) is as antiquated and counter-productive as the agrarian-era summer break. And if you’re a family with two working parents, a snow day isn’t just the kids having fun outside. It’s a 10-hour expanse of time where, inside, you want your kids to have their brains stimulated, but you have to work, and you have no idea what their education should be that day—because that’s what their schools and teachers are for.
It didn’t have to be this way. Prince William County outside D.C. had adopted a “code orange” snow day policy to ensure education continues on snow days. The superintendent explained that COVID-19 had “impacted student learning significantly, and we must maximize the time available to provide instruction for our students…”
I innocently took to Twitter to suggest that Charlottesville’s schools follow such models and provide at least some educational connection on snow days.
Here’s what came back to me:
The head of the local teachers’ union, who is also a former co-chair of Charlottesville’s local Democratic party, replied that this was “astroturfing outrage about closures when the real root cause is lack of money for schools. Learning loss and gaps from the Great Recession predate anything from COVID.”
Progressive New York Times Jamelle Bouie (columnist) lives in Charlottesville. tweeted I needed to “get over” myself and that the snow days weren’t “that big of a deal.”
A local progressive activist who’s married to a Charlottesville public school teacher wrote, “I think you’re way overthinking this. Schools close for weather often… Connecting it to broader political trends is a stretch to say the least.”
However, parents knew better. One whose high-school junior is in a number of AP classes in Charlottesville’s public high school told me her teacher had been reaching out via email to give students assignments so they wouldn’t fall behind their rigorous schedule, despite the snow day “cancelation.” I heard from a parent whose third-grader is at a tony local private school where, despite school being physically “closed,” the teachers were holding morning Zoom sessions with their kids to give them basic assignments for the day ahead.
In other words, advanced and well-off kids were getting education on snow days—just not other kids who aren’t so lucky.
A week later, the schools closed down—another snowstorm. Again, I advocated for policies that would provide basic features such as a morning conference, homework, and assignments.
Even harsher was the response this time. Albemarle County teacher tweeted, “Until you teach in a classroom, plug your pacifier back in your mouth, tuck your comments back in your diaper, and let the actual educators handle education.”
Before you can teach in the classroom. If I wasn’t a teacher, I wasn’t entitled to an opinion.
A member of the Albemarle County planning commission went further, writing in one tweet that I was an “a—hole” and to “kiss off and stop your stupid nonsense forever more” and in another “No one cares about you and you are absolutely worthless.”
I’ve been around public life for a while and have developed thick skin. I also know that, on Twitter, otherwise good people say things they don’t mean.
But as a window into the outright condescension by many toward the parents who are bearing the brunt of today’s inflexible and outdated education policies, the exchanges speak volumes.
This is what the lesson should be? If progressives don’t stop circling the wagons, then public schools may lose their mission.
Youngkin, despite having ridden public-school parents’ resentment into the governor’s office, is no friend of public schools. Youngkin offers greater support to private schools than public, and more control over whether or not race is taught in public schools. (Youngkin’s first move in office was an executive order banning critical race theory from Virginia’s public schools and he has proposed giving parents public dollars to spend on private schools.)
Parents of children in public school should feel heard, acknowledged and taken seriously.