WASHINGTON — Nearly a year after most schools shut down, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sees an opportunity for the Republican Party, whose handling of the coronavirus pandemic under Donald Trump was widely seen as anti-scientific and contributing to thousands of needless deaths.
With parental frustration over the school closures boiling over in parts of the country and too little progress being made to reopen them for in-person instruction under President Biden, Christie, a onetime Republican presidential candidate and longtime foe of public sector unions, has renewed a crusade that made him famous years ago, one YouTube video at a time, and sparked talk of a White House run.
In a recent interview with Yahoo News, Christie said school closures are an issue that “resonates with parents,” particularly those in suburbs where Democrats have recently been making inroads. Those are the very suburbs — in Virginia, New Jersey, California — where the battle over school closures has been most fervently pitched.
“When you look at the voters that Trump lost in the last election, it was predominantly suburban, educated voters. And they’re reacting very poorly to all this stuff,” Christie said.
Nationally, the reaction is somewhat mixed: A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that only 33 percent of respondents supported opening schools for in-person instruction. And 70 percent said that teachers should have expedited access to the coronavirus vaccine. Some states have made vaccinating teachers a priority, but many have not.
Other polls have also found broad support for teachers.
At the same time, it is inarguable that impatience with school closures is not going to recede. And as winter turns to spring and questions arise about what schooling will look like in the fall of 2021, that impatience could become a political force.
Christie is no longer governor, and it is not clear that he will ever run for president again. But his long-standing challenge to teachers’ unions has found renewed traction in recent weeks, as the same unions he once battled have gone from last spring’s pandemic heroes to this winter’s pandemic villains. That is because many local chapters, including those in large cities like Chicago and San Francisco, have been vocally reluctant to return to in-person classes, citing fears of the coronavirus. Studies showing that schools do not act as significant sites of viral transmission have evidently done little to allay such worries.
President Biden, who promised to follow the science in reopening schools, is now discovering that science and politics don’t always mix. That presents a perfect opportunity for a Republican Party still smarting from Trump’s infamous recommendation to expel the coronavirus with bleach.
“The science is on our side on this one,” said Christie, who was hospitalized with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. He emerged chastened from the experience, speaking publicly about the need to wear masks at a time when many other Republicans continued to wage Trump’s anti-mask culture war.
When it comes to schools, though, he is utterly unapologetic for his calls to reopen. Increasingly, congressional Republicans agree. They have introduced legislation that would mandate that schools receiving new federal funds would have to commit to reopening. “The Biden administration talks about ‘following the science’ — but the science is clear that schools can be opened, and yet schools are still closed,” Sen Ben Sasse, R-Neb., told Yahoo News in a statement.
“Let’s be upfront about the real damage here: Rich kids are going to be fine — their parents can hire tutors and pay for private schools — but poor kids are the ones who are getting really badly hurt. No more empty promises, no more excuses, no more politics, no more indifference to the massive learning losses of poor kids. Let’s actually help states and local districts open the schools.”
The White House declined to comment but pointed to polls that, like the one conducted by Yahoo News and YouGov, showed the public more or less agreeing that schools are opening along proper timelines. Among the results the White House forwarded was polling by Echelon Insights, a Republican firm, which showed people do consistently trust their local school districts.
At the same time, the daily drumbeat of stories on the stalled push to reopen schools clearly has staffers worried.
By entering the debate over school reopening, Christie is rejoining one of the fights that marked his days in Trenton. During his time as New Jersey’s blustery Republican governor, he relished a battle many other elected officials have shied away from, given how much power these public sector unions wield.
In a 2015 interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, for example, Christie, who was then running for president, blasted the American Federation of Teachers — the nation’s second-largest union representing teachers, after the National Education Association — as “the single most destructive force in public education in America.”
A few months after that, he likened the union representing New Jersey’s teachers to an organized crime family, a comparison of no small significance in the home state of Tony Soprano.
Today his animus toward those unions is as strong as ever. “It drives me nuts,” Christie said of the unions’ continued opposition to returning to the classroom.
That opposition is far from universal, however. Teachers have returned in New York City, while AFT president Randi Weingarten has repeatedly endorsed in-person instruction. Her union first released a plan to reopen last April. And it has kept a distance from more radical reopening proposals that have been pilloried by conservative media outlets.
But millions of children remain in online school, particularly those in high school.
And in some districts, hybrid learning models have meant that students are in the classroom for only two or three days a week. One school in California has proposed a reopening that would have students back in the classroom for one hour — per week.
Talking about the situation gets Christie worked up, and his outrage runs deep. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal published late last week, he argued that “adults are placing their own interests ahead of the interests of the children” and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had softened its guidelines. “The CDC is being used as a political tool, flip-flopping on the science under pressure from the national unions and their Biden administration allies,” he said.
The unions reject that charge, countering that having an administration that listens is not the same thing as bending that administration’s findings to suit their own interests. “I do not buy into that false narrative,” National Education Association president Becky Pringle told Yahoo News in response to Christie’s accusations. “We already know what our students need. And we have been asking for it for 11 months. We’ve been asking for those resources.”
Those resources — that is, money to hire staff, upgrade ventilation systems and purchase face masks and screens — are forthcoming. Congress is expected to soon pass Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Recovery Plan, which includes $130 billion for schools. Then again, schools have been safely opened around the country without having made the kind of huge infrastructure investments that Pringle and others say are necessary.
The recent attacks by Republicans (and some Democrats) seem to have put the unions on the defensive, forcing them to articulate their support of reopening.
“Teachers, staff, and the unions behind them are not a barrier to schools reopening,” the AFT tweeted in response to Christie’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “We are a barrier to staff and students being put in danger for Republican talking points.”
Christie does like to talk, but he has about as much use for talking points as did Trump.
“They are a political powerhouse,” he said of the unions. And they have a natural ally in first lady Jill Biden, an educator who has described herself as a “proud union member.” There is also the president’s own long-standing affinity for organized labor, a traditional Democratic voting bloc.
To reopen schools, Biden may have to loosen those bonds ever so slightly, or admit, as some senior staffers appear to be doing, that his promise is impossible to keep.
“That’s going to hurt his credibility,” Christie speculates. And that, in turn, could give Republicans the path back to power they desperately yearn to find.
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