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A crowd gathers to play in the snow at Lake Fairfax Park on January 31, 2021, in Reston, VA. Credit - Jahi Chikwendiu—The Washington Post/Getty Images
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.”
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.”
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.”
Parents knew otherwise. 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. 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.
The lesson? Ironically, the very mission of public schools could be put at risk if progressives continue to circle their wagons.
Youngkin, despite having ridden public-school parents’ resentment into the governor’s office, is no friend of public schools. He offers more support for private schools rather than for public ones, more interference on whether and how race can be taught in our 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.)
The feelings and ideas of struggling public-school parents should be acknowledged, heard, and heeded, on matters big and small, unless we want many more Youngkins in the years to come.