Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory last week was fueled, at least in part, by COVID-19 school shutdowns that energized suburban parents to confront the state’s Democratic establishment.
While network exit polls did not ask specifically about school shutdowns, nearly 25% of Virginia voters told the exit pollsters that parents should have “a lot” of say about what goes on in their children’s schools.
Mr. Youngkin, a Republican who made parental rights a mainstay of his campaign, edged out Democrat Terry McAuliffe on the issue by 6 percentage points with voters, according to exit polls.
When the pandemic hit last year, governors across the U.S. used emergency powers to eliminate in-person instruction in public schools and shutter local businesses, resulting in confusion and frustration among parents.
Millions of parents found themselves in the unemployment line, including 3 million women, many of whom faced a choice between their front-line jobs and caring for their children, who were forced to go to school online.
Grocery store clerks, restaurant managers and small-business owners had to figure out how to go to work and ensure their children attended Zoom classes at home.
K-12 online learning began to collapse, and parents noticed their children were falling behind academically and hurting emotionally.
According to research released in September by the Brookings Institution, children who did not receive in-person school instruction over the previous 18 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic were stymied academically. Depression, stress and anxiety increased, the research showed. Brookings noted that the shutdowns also decreased college enrollment, which would result in long-term economic setbacks.
About 69% of parents were concerned about the amount of in-person schooling their children missed, according to an NPR poll conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Schools remained closed in the U.S. longer than in most other Western countries. Jurisdictions led by Democrats overwhelmingly kept their schools closed longer than those led by Republicans.
Virginia ranked seventh for having the fewest days of in-school instruction last year out of all 50 states, according to the website Burbio.
By March, the majority of Northern Virginia public school students had not been taught in an in-person environment for an entire year. Yet teachers and their unions supported the school closures. They said restarting in-person learning would be too dangerous.
Parents grew upset about this line in the sand drawn by local and state officials. They feared their children were falling behind academically.
Parents formed activist organizations such as the Open Fairfax County Public Schools Coalition and the Northern Virginia Parent Student Alliance to begin pressuring school officials to restart in-person instruction.
Saundra Davis, a co-founder of the Open FCPS Coalition, told Fox News Channel’s Laura Ingrahm in July that her organization is a bipartisan group of parents who say Fairfax County refused to reopen its schools but paid more attention to “other things like their pet projects and social justice issues.”
“You’ll be surprised to know that I’m a Democrat and we are a grassroots bipartisan group and everybody on the board, we’ve been writing letters. We’ve gone to them and spoken to them personally. I’ve tried to warn them that there’s a bipartisan tidal wave coming their way,” Ms. Davis said. “They don’t look us in the eye. They don’t write us back. And if we can’t recall them, one by one, there’s an election in November in Virginia.”
Other families withdrew their children from the public school system altogether. In Fairfax County, the most populous county in Virginia, more than 10,000 students — 5% — had withdrawn from the school system since the beginning of the pandemic. Enrollment dropped 3.9% in nearby Arlington County and 3.4% in Loudoun County.
The school districts were torn between satisfying parents and their children who wanted schools to reopen and teachers who slow-walked the reopening process in the name of public safety, Rep. Elaine Luria, Virginia Democrat, told the Times.
“I think that the schools adapted and did the best they could under those circumstances. And I think everyone can acknowledge that there have been some learning losses for kids not being face to face with their teachers in the classroom during COVID, but it’s an unprecedented time,” she said.
Ms. Luria added, “I’ve been very closely in contact with our local school boards and school superintendents to understand all the things they’re doing to mitigate the time that students weren’t personally face-to-face in the classroom during COVID.”
The parental backlash against school shutdowns, which Democratic leaders favored, stretched from coast to coast.
Tyler Sandberg, vice president of the educational reform nonprofit Ready Colorado, said the parent-driven election victories in Colorado and Virginia this week came primarily from mothers and fathers who were frustrated at how public schools handled COVID-19 shutdowns.
“There’s been a lot of media attention nationally to masks and critical race theory, but ultimately the fire was lit when teachers unions kept schools closed beyond all reason,” Mr. Sandberg told The Washington Times. “In Colorado, pot shops were open, but schools were closed.”
Correction: This article has been corrected to remove the reference to the teachers union in Rep. Luria’s response.
• Sean M. Salai contributed to this report.