Last night, San Francisco voters recalled three members of the city's school board in what CNN's Gregory Krieg described as a "Democrats against Democrats" purge, the culmination of months of swirling frustration around the mismanagement and misplaced priorities of San Francisco's district leadership.
Among the pain points driving these voters and parents to revolt against district leadership were: focusing on renaming schools named after George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, eliminating merit-based accelerated learning opportunities in the name of social justice, "sick-outs" led by teachers calling for even more COVID-19 restrictions, to say nothing of the challenges posed by the remote learning deployed by the district during the pandemic.
While the furor around K-12 schools isn't just about COVID-19, I believe the pandemic exposed a number of problems in our education system that have all congealed into a potent frustration about schools.
On Monday, I wrote extensively about the phenomenon of blue-state governors and progressive city mayors rolling back COVID-19 mandates and restrictions that apply to adults, trying to unpack why these political leaders would make these moves even though polls still broadly show that Democrats say they are supportive of mandates.
Today, I want to tackle the policies and restrictions that apply to kids and, by default, parents or guardians.
In many parts of America, the rules that apply to children in schools are very different from the rules that apply to adults going about their lives. Nowhere was this made more prominent than a recent viral photo of Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams posing unmasked in a classroom full of masked little kids. "The rules for children don't really apply to important adults" was the message inadvertently sent by the image, which was quickly deleted.
Adults are allowed to go into restaurants and dine unmasked (though sometimes must engage in the absurd theatre of wearing a mask only as they walk to and from their table). They can go to go to the gym or the grocery store without covering their face. And even in places with tougher COVID-19 restrictions, rules for adults are rolling back much faster than rules for kids. For instance, Monday's news that DC would be lifting its COVID-19 public health restrictions also came with word that rules would not be lifted for schools for the foreseeable future.
There are two major competing forces at work here. On the one hand, the data have been clear and consistent that kids are simply not at nearly as much risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes as older people - even with the Omicron variant afoot (per this New York Times reporting). Because schools are mostly full of kids, in-person schooling does not produce super-spreader hot spots (again, per NYT). The U.S. is relatively alone among Western nations in requiring kids to mask up. And unlike my example in Monday's newsletter of an adult who is annoyed about wearing a mask out in public places, there are actual real negative consequences for requiring children to wear masks all the time.
Given this, you would think that getting kids back into classrooms consistently, maximizing their ability to be in-person without disruption, and allowing them to be unmasked would be high priorities. The costs of remote learning and masking are real, and the risks to children of sitting unmasked in a classroom are relatively low.
You would think this would lead to getting kids back to "normalcy" would come before such relaxation of measures came for the adults. And yet.
In many cities across the US, the adults will unmask and mingle in bars before the kids do in classrooms. In fact, only just this week will schools in Los Angeles finally stop requiring kids to mask outdoors, something we've known for a while is of dubious public health value.
But there's another side to this equation. In general, we as a society have a much lower risk tolerance for kids than we do for adults, and for good reason. Adults can take all sorts of risks - smart and stupid - that we prohibit kids from taking. Our natural instinct is to maximize protection of the young. So even if the risks to children are very, very small, many adults - including and especially parents - are reluctant to expose their child to those risks, even if there are costs.
Those adults in bars have the ability to get vaccinated if they so choose. Kids under 5 do not, and this week's disastrous announcement that the approval of vaccines for kids in this age group would be delayed was met with a primal scream by so many parents. (Or, if not a primal scream, a thoughtful thread of commentary by Ezra Klein.) If an adult in a bar gets COVID a few days later, the bar doesn't have to shut down for a week. If a kid in preschool gets COVID, it can become a five-alarm fire of notifying all parents and shutting down the school or class, making those parents scramble for childcare.
All of which brings us to the situation in many parts of the country where masks and closures and quarantines and mandates are just no longer a thing most adults have to deal with, but students (including those of college age) can still face the extremes of bizarre restrictions like requiring kids to eat lunch outside in sub-freezing temperatures or Yale's insane edict that students could not so much as patronize a New Haven pizzeria upon return from winter break.
Given all this, what do the polls say about public opinion and COVID requirements around kids?
The polls in some ways tell a similar story about COVID rules facing kids as they do about adults. Namely:
Most parents are pretty OK with specific requirements around masks or social distancing in schools, but...
Many are also frustrated with how their schools are handling COVID-19 and are increasingly worried about learning loss and the mental health consequences of the pandemic on students.
Much like the polls I covered Monday that showed adults generally favorable to mask mandates but also deeply exhausted by the pandemic and ready to get back to normal, parents are reluctant to say they want to roll back mask mandates and such on kids but are increasingly likely to express fear and exhaustion about how the adults in charge are handling things for kids.
That exhaustion and frustration does not all run in one direction. Of the over four in ten parents in my firm's surveys for National Parents Union who say they are frustrated by their school's handling of COVID-19, more parents express frustration that schools aren't doing enough versus frustration that schools are going overboard. Only 5 percent of those who were frustrated specifically cited mask mandates as a reason why, and twice as many (10 percent) actually said a lack of mask mandate in their area was a point of frustration.
Much like the blue-state voters who support mask mandates for adults, I am not seeing overwhelming evidence that K-12 parents in general are clamoring for their children to be unmasked.
However. Parent anxiety about the learning loss they are seeing their children experience is returning to the highest levels we've seen in our polling, as are concerns about kids' social and emotional well-being. There's also the issue of consistency; our research has been ongoing since the very early days of the pandemic and has found that parents would much prefer to have some kind of consistent approach to educating their children versus something that is ad-hoc, haphazard, and fluctuates around.
This is something Democratic pollster Brian Stryker has found poses a big risk to public opinion toward leaders:
The reality is that most parents are not clamoring for their kids to be unmasked tomorrow. They've generally been willing to cut schools and districts a lot of slack for having to cope with unusual and difficult circumstances.
But at the same time, the burden that this is placing on them as parents is coming at an especially tough time, and when schools seem focused on the wrong topic (as in San Francisco) or don't acknowledge that burden parents are facing, the backlash can be swift and fierce.
The reality is that parent anger is not just about one thing. For some parents, yes, it is about worries over what they view as a focus on social justice at the expense of things like gifted education or school re-opening. For some, yes, it is "critical race theory." For some, it is anger that their four year old must mask-up on the playground.
But more generally, the frustration is that parents have been asked to watch their children go through something awful, and that has taken a toll on them as parents too. And from that generalized frustration comes a push for change, a push to acknowledge parents' sacrifice and therefore a demand to hear parents' voices more clearly in the conversation about what should be done about their children.
Thanks again for being a reader of Codebook. Do you think school districts are listening to parents? Hop to the comments to start the discussion.
You can also catch my weekly radio show, "The Trendline", on SiriusXM P.O.T.U.S. Channel 124 airing Saturdays at 10 AM Eastern.
(Cover Photo: Getty/Halfpoint Images)