The battle over whether schools should be closed to in-person learning because of the coronavirus has ramped up with the Omicron surge. Schools in a number of districts in the country have either gone fully to remote learning or have delayed returning after the holidays. It has also pitted teachers’ unions against some Democrats, who have often been allies.
The issue of closing schools has been incredibly divisive and has had clear political consequences that seem to have hurt Democrats, as Republicans have been more forceful in arguing to keep in-person learning open.
During the Delta surge in August, the Pew Research Center asked Americans what they viewed as what could be necessary steps to address the coronavirus.
The country was split pretty closely, with 51% saying it was unnecessary to close schools to in-person learning and 48% saying it was necessary. That was basically the same as it had been in February 2021, before Covid-19 vaccines became widely available. The divide was 47% indicating it was necessary to 52% indicating it was unnecessary.
Importantly, the closing of schools to in-person learning was deemed to be far less necessary compared with other measures Pew asked about. Americans were far more likely to see requiring masks on airplane travelers (80%), restricting international travel to America (79%) and asking people to avoid gathering in large groups (73%) as necessary. A near-equal amount (50%) believed closing in-person dining was necessary.
What’s also notable is that school closings have clearly become less popular as the pandemic has gone on and more has been learned about the virus. Back in March 2020, 90% of Americans said closing schools was necessary to control the virus.
Parents themselves have wanted in-person learning for students. The vast majority (79%) of parents of students in elementary, middle and high school wanted an in-person option for their children, according to a Gallup poll taken in February 2021.
While it is possible that these numbers could shift with Omicron, keep in mind that most Americans didn’t seem too concerned about Omicron as of December. Just 37% were extremely or very concerned about the variant in a December Axios/Ipsos poll. That’s considerably different from where things were at the beginning of the pandemic in April 2020, when more than 60% of Americans were extremely or very concerned about the coronavirus.
Instead, the public seems to be moving toward the Republican position when it comes to participating in everyday activities, including education.
Republicans have been more forceful than Democrats in calling for in-person learning. It seems to have had a clear impact on who Americans trust on the issue of education.
In an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken in November, 44% of voters trusted the Republican Party on the issue of education compared with 42% trusting Democrats. An NBC News poll conducted around that same time still gave Democrats a 10-point edge, but this was the smallest advantage they have had on the issue in NBC News polling since 2004.
Indeed, when averaged together, the two polls show only a small, within the margin of error, edge for the Democrats on education. This average is the closest the two parties have been on education in nearly two decades.
We witnessed how powerful education can be as a political issue in the Virginia gubernatorial race in November. While there were many different parts to that education debate, there was a lot of frustration over school closures in the state. Republican Glenn Youngkin rallied those voters and won the election.
About a quarter (24%) of Virginia voters said in the exit polls that education was the most important issue. These voters went for Youngkin by 6 points.
Preelection polls showed that among all voters, Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe earned about an equal level of trust on education and schools. That was considerably different from the 2017 election, when close preelection polling showed that Democrat Ralph Northam was far more trusted than his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, on education. (Northam ended up winning that race by 9 points.)
Democrats have no doubt seen these results and this polling data. President Joe Biden himself has said that schools should remain open.
Democrats, though, still need to keep their base in mind when it comes to education and pandemic measures at large. Teachers’ unions are big contributors to the Democratic Party and are sought-after endorsements in primaries. The fact that many of their union members in places like Chicago are reticent about in-person learning matters.
Moreover, the Democratic base is far more concerned about the Omicron variant than the public at large. In the aforementioned Ipsos poll, 60% of Democrats were extremely or very concerned about the Omicron variant as of December.
And while only 45% of American adults overall said they were staying home and avoiding others as much as possible in mid-December, 58% of Democrats said they were staying home and avoiding others as much as possible. (For comparison, both of these percentages were north of 90% in April 2020.)
This puts Democrats in a bit of a bind. We’ll have to see how they are able to balance part of their base with the public at large.