GOP officials say their goal is to make 'a big deal' out of the issue to win back suburban voters.
Republicans are attacking President Joe Biden, Democrats, and teachers unions over schools reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Their arguments vary — if businesses are open, why not schools? Aren't teachers essential workers? Children don't are less susceptible to the virus, so why can't they return to in-person learning? And how are parents supposed to work from home and watch their kids are the same time?
Some of those arguments — that children somehow are in less danger of catching the virus and therefore in-person schooling is fine — have been debunked. Children, after all, can still develop COVID-19, and while fewer of them have become infected in the past year than adults, they can certainly spread the virus to their adult teachers and school staff.
Most of the arguments, however, appear to have a single goal in mind: winning elections.
An RNC official told NBC News that Republicans are preparing to "hammer away" at the issue, attacking Biden for "underwhelming" school reopening goals and accusing Democrats of being slow to reopen schools "to appease powerful school unions," to try to score points with suburban voters and women, "two groups it has been hemorrhaging in the Trump era," the New York Times noted on Feb. 12.
Corry Bliss, a leading Republican consultant, told NBC, "This is the suburban parent revolt."
"One of the reasons why I think the suburbs are back in play for Republicans is because the Democrats are simply unwilling to stand up to the [teachers] unions," Bliss claimed.
John Feehery, a former top House Republican official, similarly told the Times that "school closures have radicalized suburban mothers for the last six months."
Feehery, who supports in-person learning, added, "the GOP will have its No. 1 issue to take back the House," if Biden doesn't handle reopenings with a "workable plan."
Indeed, conservative women in the suburbs were one of the keys to Biden's win in November, and a group the GOP hopes to win back if they ever plan to win the White House again.
As FiveThirtyEight wrote in October, "In 2016, Trump won them, 47 percent to 45 percent, according to an analysis of validated voters by the Pew Research Center. But by 2018, 52 percent of suburban voters supported Democratic candidates for Congress, compared with 45 percent who supported Republican candidates."
The loss in November for the GOP was stark: According to the Brookings Institution, "In terms of aggregate votes in these large suburban counties, there was a shift from a 1.2 million vote advantage for Trump in 2016 to (at last count) a 613,000 vote advantage for Biden—a nearly 2 million vote flip."
Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, the National Republican Congressional Committee chair, put the current Republican strategy in simple terms.
"As soon as we started last month, I made a big deal out of the fact that messaging has to be about schools as we go forward," he told NBC News. "It's the teachers unions that want to keep the schools closed. Democrats are ignoring the science, and they're standing with their special-interest donors instead of the students."
Echoing that sentiment, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed last week that "the Biden administration’s own scientists say schools could reopen safely now with smart and simple precautions," and that Democrats' proposals to open up when it's safe "buys into the myth from big labor that schools should stay shut a lot longer."
Republicans nationwide are already trying to use those same claims to their advantage.
Pete Synder, a leading GOP candidate for Virginia governor, has focused his campaign on school reopening, launching ads centered on the hashtag #openourschools. And on Feb. 3, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced a bill in Congress to prohibit schools from receiving federal funds or coronavirus relief if they do not provide in-person instruction. The bill was ultimately never brought to a vote.
The same day, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) introduced a budget amendment to restrict federal COVID-19 relief against schools that do not resume in-person learning.
In a similar move, Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Tim Scott (R-SC) introduced a budget amendment to withhold coronavirus aid to schools that do not reopen after teachers are vaccinated, which failed in a party-line 50-50 vote on Feb. 4.
Senate Health and Education Committee Chair Patty Murray slammed the actions, telling the Times, "If we withhold funds and schools cannot implement health-safety protocols, then we are acting counter to actually bringing students back into the classrooms," adding that the Republicans are staging a "political show."
The GOP claims don't match reality.
Biden himself has pushed for schools to open, albeit when it is safe to do so. In his proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, the American Rescue Plan, he has called for $170 billion in funding for schools, with $130 billion to support safe reopenings.
The funds would help schools "reduce class sizes and modify spaces so students and teachers can socially distance; improve ventilation; hire more janitors and implement mitigation measures; provide personal protective equipment," among other things.
"President Biden isn't going to rest until students are back in school five days a week, and if Republicans agree, they should match their words with action and support the president’s Rescue Plan, which will get schools the resources they desperately need to reopen safely," White House spokesman Michael Gwin told Politico.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki reinforced Biden's goal, adding on Feb. 11 that the administration would simply be "letting the science and medical experts lead."
Biden's plans also match expert advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which introduced a five-step plan on Feb. 12 to guide schools on safe reopening, emphasizing "careful considerations" for the "health and wellness of students, their families, and teachers and staff."
Recent polling also counteracts Republicans' talking points that the singular goal of teachers unions is to keep schools closed.
An American Federation of Teachers survey released Feb. 16 found that teachers actually want to return to classrooms. According to that poll, 85% "would be comfortable working in classrooms if the AFT’s safety recommendations were followed and funded." At least 79% say that "remote learning is not working as well as in-person [learning]."
AFT President Randi Weingarten said teachers "understand the importance of in-school learning for their kids."
"While other countries revere their teachers as professionals and pay them accordingly, elite U.S. commentators and GOP rhetoricians appear to revel in a fresh round of teacher bashing whenever the chance arises—in this case to blame them for Donald Trump’s disastrous response to a devastating pandemic," Weingarten added.
According to one of those surveys, a Morning Consult/Politico poll released Wednesday, over half of voters believe it is unsafe to send teachers back to school without vaccinating them first. And at least 59% say it should be up to local school administrators to decide when to reopen.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.