Public Schools vs The Public
The pandemic seems to have broken the social contract.
In a TIME op-ed, former Charlottesville, Virginia mayor Michael Signer warns, “Democrats Lost Virginia By Ignoring Parents. Snow Days Show They Still Are.”
For those, like myself, unaware of his credentials, context is in order. He’s a Democrat. He graduated magna cum laude in politics from Princeton and received a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. He has a law degree from the University of Virginia and is or once was a board member of the Truman National Security Project. He’s been married for a decade to Emily Blount, a former press secretary to Rep. Jim Moran (D, VA) with a Ph.D. in History and Iranian Studies from the University of St. Andrews. He is anything but a Republican, much less a Trumper.
Yet he very much voices the frustrations that seem most associated with Trumpers but are in fact much more widely shared.
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. And I got a refresher on a snow day.
My wife and I are the proud parents of twin second-grade boys enrolled in a great local public school. We both went to public schools and deeply believe in their mission. When I was mayor of our city, Charlottesville, my proudest achievements included allocating higher budgets to them.
But we also shared in the miserable experience of how schools have been run in Virginia during COVID-19. One day in early 2020, we got the message that the schools would be closed the next day. And they were. No messages, no instructional materials, nothing other than an email with a list of web resources we could access and schedule on our own (think ABC Mouse). Eventually, teachers scheduled optional weekly Zoom calls, but those calls were just sessions where students aimlessly said hello to each other for 30 minutes. When schools came back in-person in the spring of 2021, they were inexplicably closed every Friday.
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. A national study found the closures led to a greater risk of widening educational disparities among poorer families and children with disabilities, and increased anxiety, loneliness, child stress, sadness, frustration, 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,
To be clear, McAuliffe was speaking about policies that would allow parents to pull books they found objectionable 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.”
Now, in fairness, Youngkin’s win was overdetermined. While Virginia has morphed from a reliable Red State when I moved here just shy of two full decades ago to a reliable Blue State, having voted Democrat for President the last four cycles and with two Democratic Senators, the fact of the matter is that the off-off-off year gubernatorial election almost always goes opposite the way the state voted for the White House for a variety of reasons we don’t need to rehash here. (Steven Taylor touched on some of them in November).
Still, there’s no doubt that Virginians, myself included even though held my nose and voted for McAuliffe over the Trumpist demagogue Youngkin, became very frustrated with the way our public schools handled COVID. It wasn’t just that the schools delivered subpar online instruction. They did so after taking several weeks off, ostensibly to prepare. That they just gave themselves Fridays off for no apparent reason certainly didn’t help.
My oldest’s (then in 5th grade) teacher decided to go on vacation at the beach during the pandemic and mysteriously had WiFi outages every other day that precluded her from conducting online classes. Too bad. A shame, really.
They constantly announced the resumption of in-person learning, months after the state was otherwise open for business, and then pulled the football away—sometimes with little more than a day’s notice. When, at long last, the state legislature had enough and finally ordered them back to work after more than a year, they shifted to partial days. (Except for the kids of the teachers themselves, who were able to attend in-person every day to relieve the childcare burden, as if taxpayers didn’t have similar issues.) And still gave themselves a day off!
All the while hectoring parents for daring to question their decisions.
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…”
It was actually worse here in Northern Virginia. Fairfax County schools closed the whole week, despite no power outages. And no instruction, period, during this window.
They returned this past Monday only to announce at noon Wednesday that they would close Thursday because of snow in the forecast. This, despite the forecast showing well-above-freezing temperatures with little chance for accumulation. And, of course, the snow never came—it was 40 and drizzling when the school bus would have come. To add insult to injury, even though school was remote and no one needed to drive there, there was inexplicably a two-hour delay to the start of instruction. Which, naturally, was on a day they had already decided to give themselves two hours off in the afternoon, followed by a whole day off the following Monday, to facilitate end-of-quarter grading. (Somehow, I’ve always managed to do my job and grade papers—which, it turns out, is also part of my job.)
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.”
The progressive New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, who 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.”
The last of these, actually, is fair. The problem is that context matters. Parents have come out of the COVID period with the distinct impression that the schools were being run in the interest of the teachers and their unions, not the parents and their children. They’ve flipped public service on its head and we’ve noticed.
A week later, the schools closed down—another snowstorm. I advocated again for policy that could provide, at base, something like a morning conference call, assignments, worksheets.
This time, the reaction was even harsher. A teacher in neighboring Albemarle County 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.”
Until you teach in a 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.”
Having been in public life, I have a 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.
I’m not sure that we can take some mean tweets as evidence of much of anything. But, again, the relationship has been permanently altered. The social contract between the parents and teachers has been violated, trust no longer exists, and things—like snow days—that otherwise would have seemed normal are taken as more evidence that the schools are not here to serve us. And people are hopping mad about it.
Our family is more fortunate than most. My wife and I both make a decent living and have salaried, reasonably pandemic-proof, jobs with considerable scheduling flexibility. Indeed, she’s been essentially full-time telework for two years now. We’re much more able than most to be able to absorb these disruptions. But I honestly don’t know how single parents or those with less flexible schedules are supposed to navigate this. Moreover, it’s crystal clear that the people running the schools don’t care.