Opinion: The re-opening of schools provokes sober thinking among Georgia Republicans

The note came from exurbia. He was the husband of a high school teacher and wanted no trouble for his wife — but was worried about her imminent return to the classroom.

No accommodation had been made for social distancing. Masks were to be a lifestyle choice. It wasn't that his wife thought a coronavirus outbreak was possible, he said. Their sense of the situation was that infection was inevitable.

Somebody is bound to get hurt, he said.

This wasn’t the first expression of fatalism I’d heard when it came to the topic of reopening Georgia’s schools. But the timing helped put a focus on one of the summer’s most important shifts in political messaging, happening almost exclusively on the Republican side of the aisle.

Coming out of the Fourth of July weekend, President Donald Trump began a Twitter campaign that he clearly felt was essential — judging by his use of the all-caps key — to the nation’s economic recovery: “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!”

Days later, he accused Democrats of plotting to keep school doors closed to in-person tutelage. “May cut off funding if not open!” the president tapped out. Not satisfied, Trump also complained that guidelines for school systems issued by the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were too tough.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos carried the president’s message to the Sunday talk shows. She, too, threatened to pull federal funding if school systems balked at a return to physical classrooms. “We’re a country of action,” she said. “We have education leaders who can work hard and figure this out.”

The resulting silence from Georgia Republicans was notable.

Yes, the day after DeVos made her TV splash, the state Department of Education issued revised coronavirus guidelines that made mask-wearing in classrooms an optional feature — putting the onus on Brian Kemp.

“Per the governor’s executive order, the use of face coverings/masks is not mandated but is strongly recommended, particularly in settings where social distancing is difficult to accomplish (i.e. during hallway transitions, drop-off/pick-up, etc.),” the new guidelines said.

Mask-wearing in classrooms was not mentioned.

“The classroom is the place where you are most likely to be within six feet, longer than 15 minutes — and where we most need the mitigation of wearing the mask,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. “We are trying to avoid the political controversy because we know there are those who want to say it’s their civil liberty not to wear a mask.”

In essence, you’re putting the health of a school’s population in the hands of any number of anti-authoritarian 15-year-olds.

More important, as my AJC colleague Ty Tagami pointed out, the new guideline package shifted its focus away from when school systems were to open. Instead, administrators were advised on when to close, and how.

It was a subtle admission that, as essential as schools are to the economy and individual well-being, when they are opened during a pandemic, somebody is bound to get hurt.

That may have been a very sobering moment for many.

Two days later, Gov. Brian Kemp issued a new set of emergency pandemic orders. He specifically prohibited cities and counties from issuing mandatory mask ordinances — a matter now before the courts. But local school boards, the governor said, would now be free to require all employees and students “to wear face masks or face coverings while indoors on school property during school hours.”

On Monday, one week after Trump and DeVos aimed their threats at school systems that balked in the face of the pandemic, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Trump ally in the midst of a tightening reelection bid, struck an entirely different tone.

“As the son of two public school educators, I understand the importance of empowering local school systems to make decisions that are best for their communities and students,” Perdue said via Twitter, announcing the introduction of legislation to create a clearinghouse that would offer best practices for the opening of classrooms during a pandemic.

Perdue declared that he would not be telling school local school systems when or how to proceed.

Twenty-four hours later, state School Superintendent Richard Woods said much the same thing. The Republican incumbent assured local administrators that he would not seek to influence their decisions on when to reopen classrooms for in-person instruction.

One after another, a dozen school systems in Georgia — most of them in metro Atlanta — announced they would be conducting virtual classrooms at the beginning of the school year. Meghan Frick, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said the rest of the state’s 181 school systems appear headed for physical classroom instruction or a hybrid of in-person and virtual teaching.

If you were to approach any of these Republican gentlemen I’ve mentioned — Kemp, Perdue and Woods, they would no doubt profess themselves to be local-control enthusiasts. But that sentiment has been known to disappear from GOP priority lists when inconvenient.

Other motives must be considered.

By now, we all know enough epidemiology to understand that when fresh groups of strangers are brought together in close proximity, the coronavirus erupts. When — not if — that happens, blame will be apportioned. The closer the decision-maker is to the teacher, parent and student, the better. Especially at the height of a fall election campaign.

Then there is the fact that Georgia Republicans would like very much to hang onto the northern suburbs of metro Atlanta in November — a region driven by college-educated women voters. The odds of that happening are already shrinking. But you do not increase your chances by stepping between the mama bears of the PTA and their schools.

Finally, there is also the recognition that parents are pretty sophisticated when it comes to the life-changing calculations that the raising of children requires. The trade-offs that must be made when juggling jobs, child care, and education are not foreign to them under any circumstances. And if current polling is correct, they’re not ready to defer to President Trump on the topic.

Last week, a new national survey from the Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs indicated that only about one in 10 Americans think daycare centers, preschools or K-12 schools should open this fall without restrictions.

Most think mask requirements and other safety measures are necessary to restart in-person instruction, and roughly three in 10 say that teaching kids in classrooms shouldn’t happen at all.

The poll finds only 8% of Americans say K-12 schools should open for normal in-person instruction.

Education is supremely important. We all understand that. But bombast and threats have no place in a discussion about opening classrooms during a pandemic. And there are Republicans who understand that, too.

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