- - Monday, February 22, 2021

When will all public schools reopen again? 

That’s the most pressing question I hear every day and sadly, because of a failure of leadership in Washington and Virginia, the answer is consistently: “We don’t know.”

That’s unacceptable. The only correct answer is to open our schools five days a week, every week, with a teacher in the classroom, now.

As a candidate for president, Joe Biden promised to open schools by the end of his first 100 days in office. President Biden is doing what career politicians do: promise one thing on the campaign trail, and change their tune once in office. Mr. Biden and his administration caved to unions at the expense of our children.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki made headlines when she reneged on Mr. Biden’s campaign promise and said the goal for the first 100 days was to have half of all schools open for just one day a week. How only half of schools functioning for 20% of the school week qualifies as “open” is a mystery to me and hundreds of thousands of angry parents.

Less than two weeks ago, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), asserted that the science supported reopening schools before all teachers were vaccinated. Teacher unions wielded their campaign coffers and political capital to push teachers to the front of the vaccine line, but that wasn’t good enough for them. Union bosses are still holding our children hostage and refusing to open our schools five days a week with a teacher in the classroom.

In recent weeks, all public indicators from the CDC have been in favor of reopening schools, and indeed the key takeaway from the newly-issued guidance is that in-person learning can safely resume with certain precautions taken. But political pressure continues to mount, undermining the science and the importance of returning students to classrooms.

To make matters worse, Vice President Kamala Harris was given three chances on NBC’s “Today” show but refused to say kids could return to school before all teachers were vaccinated.

The muddled public statements from various members of the Biden administration underscore the absence of urgency from those in Washington to return students to the classroom anytime soon.

The news is no better in Virginia, where the vast majority of schoolhouse doors remain locked. Even for those schools supposedly reopening, flailing Gov. Ralph Northam’s plan does not even require teachers to be present. Many students sit in classrooms with non-teacher “monitors” as chaperones, while teachers are beamed in remotely on screens. 

Mr. Northam’s plan is obviously window dressing, as his call for in-person learning is merely optional for local school boards. His approach does virtually nothing for students and parents, while legislative proposals by Democrat leaders in the Virginia General Assembly put off any meaningful solutions until next school year. Terry McAuliffe, the retread governor who wants the job again, failed even to mention reopening schools in his “Education Plan.” The ineffectiveness is wretched and matches the failures we see at the national level.

What could be behind all of this obfuscation and resistance to letting students and teachers back into the classroom? One answer lies in the power wielded by teachers unions nationally and in Virginia. Joe Biden, Ralph Northam, Terry McAuliffe and other Democrats take their campaign contributions and marching orders from union leaders who are against restoring schools to operational status.

These labor union executives would be better advised to listen to their members — the teachers — who have returned to the classroom. A recent poll conducted by the American Federation of Teachers found that a large majority of teachers who have returned to work are comfortable teaching in person. Now someone needs to get that message to the people making education policy.

The arguments for reopening schools ought to be obvious, but they do bear repeating here. During online learning in Fairfax County, home to the largest school district in Virginia, the number of students failing two or more classes has increased by 83% over last year.

The personal damage from children’s isolation has been dramatic, as hospital emergency room visits for mental health problems have spiked over the previous year — by 31% for young people aged 12 to 17 and by 24% for children 5 to 11. Special needs children often feel the effects of closed schools to an even greater extent. And reopened schools are vital to our economic recovery, since parents need to be able to return fully to work.

So, the question parents and students are asking is, “When will our schools reopen?” The answer must be: Right now. Five days a week. Every week. With teachers in the classroom.

• Pete Snyder is a Republican candidate for governor of Virginia.

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