Pandemic school closures gave Youngkin the edge on education issue in Virginia governor's race

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Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory this week was fueled, at least in part, by COVID-19 school shutdowns that energized suburban parents to confront the state’s Democratic establishment.

While network exit polls did not ask specifically about school shutdown, nearly 25% of Virginia voters told the exit pollsters that parents should have “a lot” of say about what goes on in their children’s schools.

Mr. Youngkin, a Republican who made parental rights a mainstay of his campaign, edged out Democrat Terry McAuliffe on the issue by 6 points with voters, according to exit polls.

When the pandemic hit last year, governors across the U.S. used emergency powers to eliminate in-person instruction in public schools and shutter local businesses, resulting in confusion and frustration among parents.

Millions of parents found themselves on the unemployment line, including 3 million women, many of whom faced choosing between their front-line jobs and caring for their children, who were forced to go to school online.  

From grocery store clerks to restaurant managers to small business owners, parents had to figure out how to go to work and ensure their children attended Zoom classes at home.

K-12 online learning began to collapse, and parents noticed their children were falling behind academically and hurting emotionally.

According to research released in September by the Brookings Institution, children who did not receive in-person school instruction over the last 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic were stymied academically and suffered increased depression, stress and anxiety. Brookings noted that the shutdowns also decreased college enrollment which would result in long-term economic setbacks. 

About 69% of parents were concerned about the amount of in-person schooling their kids missed, according to an NPR poll conducted with Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Schools remained closed in the U.S. longer than in most western countries. Jurisdictions led by Democrats overwhelmingly kept their schools closed longer than those led by Republicans.

Virginia ranked seventh for having the fewest days of in-school instruction last year out of all 50 states, according to the website Burbio. 

By last March, the majority of Northern Virginia public school students were not taught in an in-person environment for an entire year. Yet teachers and their unions supported the school closures claiming it was too dangerous to re-start in-person learning.

Parents grew upset over this line in the sand by local and state officials, as they feared their children were falling behind academically.

Parents formed activist organizations like the Open Fairfax County Public Schools Coalition and the Northern Virginia Parent Student Alliance to begin pressuring school officials to re-start in-person instruction.

Saundra Davis, a co-founder of Open FCPS Coalition, told Fox News Channel’s Laura Ingrahm in July her organization is a bi-partisan group of parents who say that Fairfax County refused to re-open its schools but paid more attention to “other things like their pet projects and social justice issues.”

“You’ll be surprised to know that I’m a Democrat and we are a grassroots bipartisan group and everybody on the board, we’ve been writing letters. We’ve gone to them and spoken to them personally. I’ve tried to warn them that there’s a bipartisan tidal wave coming their way,” Ms. Davis said. “They don’t look us in the eye. They don’t write us back. And if we can’t recall them, one by one, there’s an election in November in Virginia.”

Other families withdrew their children from the public school system altogether. Fairfax County, the most populous county in the commonwealth saw a 5 percent dip after more than 10,000 students had withdrawn from the school system since the beginning of the pandemic. Nearby Arlington County saw a 3.9 percent drop and in Loudoun County, there was a 3.4 percent decline.  

The school districts found themselves torn between satisfying parents and their children who wanted to see schools re-open and teachers along with their local unions who slow-walked the re-opening process in the name of public safety, Rep. Elaine Luria, Virginia Democrat, told the Times. 

“I think that the schools adapted and did the best they could under those circumstances. And I think everyone can acknowledge that there have been some learning losses for kids not being face to face with their teachers in the classroom during COVID, but it’s an unprecedented time,” she said.

Ms. Luria added, “I’ve been very closely in contact with our local school boards and school superintendents to understand all the things they’re doing to mitigate the time that students weren’t personally face-to-face in the classroom during COVID.”

The parental backlash against school shutdowns, which were favored by Democratic leaders, stretched from coast to coast.

Tyler Sandberg, vice president of the educational reform nonprofit Ready Colorado, said that the parent-driven election victories in Colorado and Virginia this week came primarily from moms and dads who were frustrated at how public schools handled COVID-19 lockdowns.

“There’s been a lot of media attention nationally to masks and critical race theory, but ultimately the fire was lit when teachers’ unions kept schools closed beyond all reason,” Mr. Sandberg told The Washington Times. “In Colorado, pot shops were open, but schools were closed.”

Sean M. Salai contributed to this report.

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