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Democrats try to eliminate school closures as virus rises – NBC Chicago

When Chicago teachers went on strike last week to protest COVID-19 safety protections in the nation’s third largest school district, Democratic Party officials took action.

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker pushed for an early end to the action and helped get rapid tests to get teachers back to work. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the strikers “had given up their posts” in “an illegal walkout,” and White House press secretary Jen Psaki stressed that the students should be in attendance. school. The stalemate ended with an agreement in principle on Monday evening.

Nearly two years after the start of a pandemic that shows no signs of waning, Democrats are speaking out more strongly against COVID-19 school closures, acknowledging growing anger among parents worried their children are getting sick. delay. But in doing so, Democrats risk angering some teacher unions, who are arguing for more protections for educators amid a rise in the contagious variant of omicron and whose support has helped get elected officials elected. democrats.

The political peril for Democrats became clear after their candidate lost the Virginia governor’s race in November to a Republican who focused on education and slammed school closings from the previous year. Now, in what already promises to be a tough midterm election year, with growing frustrations among their grassroots over the blocking of voting and spending laws, they may face real problems over an issue that directly affects the lives of Americans.

“When you tell a parent that their child can’t go to school, politics often doesn’t touch people’s lives, but it has a huge impact on the lives of parents which gets them on edge,” said Brian Stryker , a Democratic pollster. based in Chicago. “The Chicago strike may be the time Democrats said, ‘Enough. We are done with it all.

This left some teachers feeling left behind. John Coneglio, director of the Columbus, Ohio Education Association, said COVID-19 has sickened so many teachers that students are not learning in overcrowded classrooms. The union has called for two weeks of distance learning. Yet none of the city’s Democrat leaders supported the union.

“I think their silence speaks,” Coneglio said. “We hope our local politicians see that this is a citywide problem, and put your head in the sand and say, ‘It’s up to you to fix this problem.’ is not fair. “

At the same time, Democrats are aware of the concerns of parents like Megan Bacigalupi, who quit her job at a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit last year to help her two young children with facing the hassle of distance learning. She has since founded a group, CA Parent Power, to lobby for schools to stay open.

“The vast majority of Democratic parents are quite prepared to vote for an independent or a Republican in November,” said Bacigalupi, who just changed her registration from Democrat to unaffiliated and said she never had voted Republican of his life. “Two years later, we don’t feel like we are in a place where our worldview will not be shaped by COVID policies.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the recent history of schools and COVID-19 is a triumph. It was contrasted last winter, when up to 45% of schools across the country were closed in a wave, to now when vaccinations are rampant and 98% of schools are open despite an even higher number of cases. of COVID-19.

“It shows remarkable strength, courage and courage on the part of teachers and paraprofessionals,” Weingarten said. “Omicron is the enemy, not the other.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said schools can stay safe when proper protocols are followed, including keeping a safe distance, wearing masks and getting vaccinated.

“Schools should be the first places to open and the last to close,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky said during a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

In Oakland, where Bacigalupi lives, schools did not reopen until August 2021, and a sick teacher protesting the conditions during the recent spate of virus cases shut them down for a day last week.

Bacigalupi’s frustrations are shared by a growing number of education-oriented parents who have become activists to push back against prolonged school closures.

“I watched my party’s failure happen in real time,” said Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union and committee member of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, “and it’s devastating because unfortunately I feel as the Democrats of this country are simply not in conversation with parents, families and communities, and have completely ignored us to listen only to the priorities of the unions.

“We are currently having difficulty getting the orders we have placed with our local health department because the tests just aren’t there,” said Superintendent Susan Enfield of the Highline School District, outside Seattle. , Washington.

The vast majority of schools are still face-to-face, and most transitions to distance learning are done on a case-by-case basis, as the virus is making too many teachers sick. The few distance learning transitions that have occurred, in places like Prince George County, Maryland, are only supposed to last a few weeks, which some experts say could be the peak of the spread of the omicron variant. But activist parents don’t trust districts to come back quickly.

“The idea that these numbers are going to drop sharply over the next two to four weeks, I think, is a dubious prospect,” said Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, which supports charter schools and has gone. opposed to a return to the virtual. learning. “I think it’s a very slippery slope.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are happy to keep ringing Democrats on school closures.

“(President Joe) Biden promised to get the kids back to school and beat COVID – he failed to do both,” said Emma Vaughn, Republican National Committee press secretary.

Biden has increasingly expressed the need for in-person instruction. On Monday, Psaki said the White House was trying to “help” Pritzker and Lightfoot as they worked to resolve the strike.

“The president’s point of view is that schools should be open nationwide, and over 95% are nationwide; that the impact on children’s mental health of not having schools open is very hard and difficult, and he doesn’t want to see schools closed across the country, ”Psaki said.

Stryker, the Democratic pollster, said Biden had been clear on the matter, “but I don’t think we’ve heard him enough in the Democratic Party.”

It’s damaging, he said, not because voters identify the party with the teachers’ unions, one of its biggest supporters, but because they see Democrats as stuck in the past. when it comes to virus security.

“These are the voters who think we are still living in 2020,” Stryker said.

Democratic politicians seem to get the message. In Nevada on Tuesday, the Clark County School District, which includes Las Vegas, announced that its schools would take additional days off over the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, resuming classes the following Wednesday. , due to the omicron push. Democratic state governor Steve Sisolak quickly tweeted his reaction.

“I know many parents and families will be disappointed with the Clark County School District’s decision,” Sisolak wrote. “Be clear, I am absolutely committed to keeping schools open for in-person learning and keeping our students, educators and staff safe. “

We should change the way we track the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, says Dr Monica Gandhi of the University of California, San Francisco. Since Omicron is more infectious, it can lead to a higher number of cases. But with many people vaccinated or having some level of immunity, not every case may be a cause for panic – hospitalizations and deaths are better measures of the severity of the virus, Gandhi says.

NBC Chicago

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