COVID School Policies Made Me Sour on the Democratic Party
Until recently, I was a loyal, left-leaning Democrat, and I had been my entire adult life. I was the kind of partisan who registered voters before midterm elections and went to protests. I hated Donald Trump so much that I struggled to be civil to relatives on the other side of the aisle. But because of what my family has gone through during the pandemic, I can’t muster the same enthusiasm. I feel adrift from my tribe and, to a certain degree, disgusted with both parties.
I can’t imagine that I would have arrived here—not a Republican, but questioning my place in the Democratic Party—had my son not been enrolled in public kindergarten in 2020.
Late that summer, the Cleveland school system announced that it would not open for in-person learning the first 9 weeks of the semester. I was distraught. My family relies on my income, and I knew that I would not be able to work full-time with my then-5-year-old son and then-3-year-old daughter at home.
Still, I was accepting of short-term school closures. My faith in the system deteriorated only as the weeks and months of remote-learning dragged on long past the initial timeline, and my son began refusing to log on for lessons. I couldn’t blame him. Despite his wonderful teacher’s best efforts, online kindergarten is about as ridiculous as it sounds, in my experience. I remember logging on to a “gym” class where my son was the only student present. The teacher, I could tell, felt embarrassed. We both knew how absurd the situation was.
Children who had been present every day the year before in preschool, whose parents I had seen drop them off every morning, just vanished. The daily gantlet of passwords and programs was a challenge for even me and my husband, both professionals who work on computers all day. About 30 percent of Cleveland families didn’t even have internet in their home prior to the pandemic.
I kept hoping that someone in our all-Democratic political leadership would take a stand on behalf of Cleveland’s 37,000 public-school children or seem to care about what was happening. Weren’t Democrats supposed to stick up for low-income kids? Instead, our veteran Democratic mayor avoided remarking on the crisis facing the city’s public-school families. Our all-Democratic city council was similarly disengaged. The same thing was happening in other blue cities and blue states across the country, as the needs of children were simply swept aside. Cleveland went so far as to close playgrounds for an entire year. That felt almost mean-spirited, given the research suggesting the negligible risk of outdoor transmission—an additional slap in the face.
Things got worse for us in December 2020, when my whole family contracted COVID-19. The coronavirus was no big deal for my 3- and 5-year-olds, but I was left with lingering long-COVID symptoms, which made the daily remote-schooling nightmare even more grueling. I say this not to hold myself up for pity. I understand that other people had a far worse 2020. I’m just trying to explain why my worldview has shifted and why I’m not the same person I was.
By the spring semester, the data showed quite clearly that schools were not big coronavirus spreaders and that, conversely, the costs of closures to children, both academically and emotionally, were very high. The American Academy of Pediatrics first urged a return to school in June 2020. In February 2021, when The New York Times surveyed 175 pediatric-disease experts, 86 percent recommended in-person school even if no one had been vaccinated.
But when the Cleveland schools finally reopened, in March 2021—under pressure from Republican Governor Mike DeWine—they chose a hybrid model that meant my son could enter the building only two days a week.
My husband and I had had enough: With about two months left in the academic year, we found a charter school that was open for full-time in-person instruction. It was difficult to give up on our public school. We were invested. But our trust was broken.
Compounding my fury was a complete lack of sympathy or outright hostility from my own “team.” Throughout the pandemic, Democrats have been eager to style themselves as the ones that “take the virus seriously,” which is shorthand, at least in the bluest states and cities, for endorsing the most extreme interventions. By questioning the wisdom of school closures—and taking our child out of public school—I found myself going against the party line. And when I tried to speak out on social media, I was shouted down and abused, accused of being a Trumper who didn’t care if teachers died. On Twitter, mothers who had been enlisted as unpaid essential workers were mocked, often in highly misogynistic terms. I saw multiple versions of “they’re just mad they’re missing yoga and brunch.”
Twitter is a cesspool full of unreasonable people. But the kind of moralizing and self-righteousness that I saw there came to characterize lefty COVID discourse to a harmful degree. As reported in this magazine, the parents in deep-blue Somerville, Massachusetts, who advocated for faster school reopening last spring were derided as “fucking white parents” in a virtual public meeting. The interests of children and the health of public education were both treated as minor concerns, if these subjects were broached at all.
Obviously, Republicans have been guilty of politicizing the pandemic with horrible consequences, fomenting mistrust in vaccines that will result in untold numbers of unnecessary deaths. I’m not excusing that.
But I’ve been disappointed by how often the Democratic response has exacerbated that mistrust by, for example, exaggerating the risks of COVID-19 to children. A low point for me was when Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe inflated child COVID-hospitalization numbers on the campaign trail. It was almost Trumplike. (If I lived in Virginia, I admit I probably would have had to sit out the recent gubernatorial election, in which the Republican candidate beat McAuliffe.)
Less extreme, but perhaps just as harmful to social cohesion, was the widespread refusal among rank-and-file Democrats to seriously wrestle with the costs of pandemic-mitigation efforts. Beyond the infuriating nonresponse to school closures—“kids are resilient”—the discussion regarding masks has also been oblivious at times. Research shows that good masks worn correctly can slow the spread of the coronavirus, but it’s silly to suggest that they have no drawbacks. They are uncomfortable and a barrier to communication—and that’s just for adults.
Because masks took on symbolic importance, however, simply attempting to add nuance to the debate—cloth masks versus KN95s, masking adults versus masking toddlers—was treated like vaccine skepticism: beyond the pale.
Generally speaking, the left-leaning rhetorical response to the pandemic seems out of line with stated Democratic values. Even when my kids returned to school, for example, I had no option for paid sick leave to care for them when they got sick. Why did I hear so little about that immense social problem and so much shaming of the women who dared to complain about having their kids stuck at home? All in all, the party that supposedly focused on “systemic” issues was obsessed with demanding personal sacrifice. And the burden fell most heavily on mothers of young children, essential workers, and low-income children. (Conversely, they fell lightly on one very vocal, core Democratic constituency: college-educated office workers.)
Many liberals and institutional leaders thought that no one could fault them for being too cautious, especially when it came to children. But I can, and I do. The University of Oxford medical ethicist Euzebiusz Jamrozik said recently on a podcast that ethical public-health responses must rely on a few key principles. One of those is “proportionality,” meaning that the intervention must be proportionate to the risk. A Bloomberg article noted in March that children in the U.S. were about 10 times as likely to be killed in a car crash as by COVID-19. Closing school for more than a year was disproportionate the same way that forbidding parents to drive would have been.
Jamrozik also said that reciprocity and equity and fairness are supposed to guide public-health strategies. Policy makers must identify not just the benefits and harms of particular strategies, but also the distribution of those benefits and harms.
None of this has shaken my support for the Democratic agenda, which I still endorse wholesale. What I’ve lost is my trust that the party is truly motivated to act in the interests of those they claim to serve. How can I get excited about universal pre-K proposals, for example, when K–12 is in shambles?
In the first week of January, the Cleveland public-school system, where my youngest is now enrolled, returned to remote learning due to the spread of the Omicron variant. This time I decided I wouldn’t even bother logging on. Domestic responsibilities spiral pretty quickly when you have kids at home. And if I had any energy left over from cooking and cleaning, I wanted to devote it to paid work. That felt like the right decision since I can’t rely on unemployment this year and my business expenses have continued to pile up.
I keep hoping that Democrats will wake up to the full range of health and social needs Americans are trying to balance right now, but that doesn’t seem likely. A friend now refers to herself as “politically homeless,” and more and more that’s how I feel as well.