News and Analysis

In Post-COVID Election, Democrats Claim They Fought To Open Schools

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In 2020, Americans’ lives were disrupted as teachers refused to work even as parents still had to go to their jobs. How would moms and dads manage to not get fired, while watching their kids all day and serving as de facto teachers?

In some Democrat-controlled states, politicians did not seem to care. National statistics show that whether a school district was closed for an extended period was correlated less with how severe coronavirus was there than the political power of unions. Shortly before the pandemic, Virginia state legislators expanded the power of public-sector labor groups. And few states’ children missed out on more months of crucial learning than Virginians.

It was an eye-opening experience for many parents, particularly in traditional Democratic strongholds like northern Virginia. They saw that teachers unions were a special interest no different than oil companies – one that wielded massive influence over elected lawmakers, and whose interests were not necessarily aligned with their own and those of their children.

The school closures were a breaking point, and many parents began questioning whether they had made a big mistake by automatically voting Democrat in down-ballot elections, often based on nothing but buzzwords invoking national political issues.

But now that one of the first post-COVID elections is at hand — Virginia has the unusual practice of holding elections for governor and the state legislature during odd-number years, and early voting opened September 17 — Democrats are attempting to erase the recent history that every parent lived, and claim that they actually were fighting to open schools.

They typically use a phrase favored by the teachers’ unions – that they wanted schools “opened safely,” a deceptive turn of phrase meaning not opened until enough demands from the union, some of which had little to do with safety or even education, were met.

Joshua Cole, a Democrat representing the Fredericksburg area, is running ads saying he “worked to get schools back on track, opening safely.”

Schuyler VanValkenburg, a former teacher now representing a swing area of Henrico County, claimed he “got to work in the House of Delegates, bringing together Democrats and Republicans to open schools safely.”

Alex Askew, a Democrat representing the military town of Virginia Beach, said he “strengthened education by… Helping our schools secure funding to reopen safely.”

Dan Helmer, who in 2019 unseated a nine-term Republican incumbent in Prince William and Fairfax counties, took credit for a “road map to safely reopen public schools.”

The Republican State Leadership Committee said the campaign-season reversal amounts to “gaslighting.”

Last school year, with no sign of liberal-controlled jurisdictions opening schools anytime soon, Republicans in the legislature drafted SB 1303, which required all school districts to offer education five days a week. Of its 10 sponsors, only two were Democrats.

Republicans wanted the bill to take effect right away, but the version that gained enough Democratic support to secure passage delayed implementation until the fall of 2021, a year and a half after schools were first shut down. None of the Democrats who took credit for “opening” schools voted for an amendment that would have made it immediate.

By the time of those votes in February 2021, data showed that closed schools had led to massive levels of failure and inequality in the state – all during the ten-month period between March 2020 and January 2021. Reopening schools by September 2021 meant up to another seven months of lost learning. Records obtained by the National Review showed that unions sent thousands of emails to Democratic state lawmakers about school re-opening.

Other Democrats, such as Fairfax’s Kathleen Murphy, are proudly advertising their alliance with the teachers union this election, appearing to think that traditionally Democratic voters will still fall captive to tribal appeals, such as mentions of Donald Trump, even if those have little to do with state policy in 2021 and are unlikely to have a palpable effect on families’ lives the way schools do. Such a strategy seemed to work for Gavin Newsom, the California governor who survived a recall election this year.

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But others in Virginia are moms like Saundra Davis, a lifelong Democratic voter up to and including a vote for Joe Biden in 2020. Politicians’ deference to teachers unions to the point where her children were being deprived of an education spurred her to support Republican candidate for governor Glenn Youngkin. “The science said that the schools were safe but the unions didn’t want to reopen in spite of the fact that kids in private schools in Virginia and public schools in other states were having in-person class,” she said, according to the Fairfax Times.

The National Education Association donated $400,000 to the campaign of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Terry McAuliffe.

Related: Virginia Gov Candidate Unveils Plan To Stop Standards-Lowering, Ideology In Schools

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