Dem Gov Hopefuls Side With Union in Fight Over Virginia School Closures

Republicans hope push to open schools gives them boost come November

A lower school substitute teacher works from her home due to the Coronavirus outbreak on April 1, 2020 in Arlington, Virginia. / Getty Images
February 10, 2021

The decision by Democratic Virginia governor Ralph Northam to push for teachers to return to the classroom next month has infuriated teachers' unions, putting Democrats running to be his successor in a political bind. Candidates must decide between leaning on science that says it’s now safe to open schools or falling in line behind the state’s powerful teachers’ unions. 

Thus far, the candidates are falling in line behind the unions. 

Not a single Democratic candidate for governor, including Northam’s predecessor Terry McAuliffe, has voiced support for the decision to open the schools on March 15, which has been attacked by the Virginia Education Association (VEA), the state’s largest teachers’ union. Neither McAuliffe nor any of his Democratic primary challengers responded to a Washington Free Beacon request for comment. 

While Democrats have dominated statewide Virginia elections for the past decade—and even took control of the state legislature in 2019—Republicans are hopeful the issue of school reopenings could give them a much-needed opportunity come November. Without a federal race on the top of the ticket, there’s an opening for a candidate to ride a local issue like school closures to electoral success.

"In 2021, Democrats won't be able to just bank on the state's anti-Trump sentiment," said Miles Coleman, an analyst for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. "The school reopening issue is something that, to a fair degree, transcends party politics. If the GOP can cast the current Democratic regime as incompetent, it may be a potent issue."

Democratic candidates in the state are falling in line with the unions, which are demanding a further delay to in-person instruction until students have been vaccinated. Though McAuliffe has acknowledged the destructive impact school closures are having on children, his education plan lacks any mention of returning to the classroom. State legislator Jennifer Carroll Foy, despite her assessment that school closures will cause children "depression and PTSD," said that schools can’t reopen until teachers are vaccinated. Jennifer McClellan, a fellow state legislator, said schools can’t reopen until "all school employees and students" are vaccinated. And Lee Carter, a state legislator and socialist, said reopening schools would expose both teachers and students to the virus.

Republican candidates are working to take advantage of the opportunity. Pete Snyder, a businessman running for office, featured the #OpenOurSchools hashtag in his first ad buy of the election. And his second ad, released this week, ends with a pledge to open schools immediately. "Five days a week, every week, with a teacher in every classroom," he says.

Snyder says his potential Democratic opponents are ignoring science showing the low health risk of opening schools because they are beholden to the unions.

"Richmond liberals want to ‘follow the science’ until the science doesn’t align with their special interests’ partisan games," Snyder told the Free Beacon. "It’s crystal clear that Terry and all the Democrats running for governor would rather line their campaign pockets than stand up to the special interests and open our schools."

McAuliffe was endorsed by the VEA and received thousands of dollars in contributions from the union during his successful 2013 campaign for governor.

Glenn Youngkin, another Republican businessman running for governor, told the Free Beacon opening schools is a top issue for voters that Democrats are "afraid to confront."

"The Democrat politicians in Virginia are failing parents because they’re too afraid to confront the special interest groups blocking the schoolhouse doors," Youngkin said. "It’s crazy and it’s shameful."

Cracks are beginning to show in political support for the lofty union demands—in the state senate, Democrats crossed the aisle on Feb. 2 to help pass a bill requiring public schools to make in-class instruction available to any student that wants it. Chap Petersen, a Democratic state senator representing Northern Virginia, said he thinks the issue of getting kids back on the right track transcends politics.

"This is not a Republican, Democrat issue," Petersen said. "This is an issue of making an effort, this is an issue about giving a damn." 

Republican state senator Siobhan Dunnavant, a medical doctor who introduced the bill, told the Free Beacon she thinks Democrats siding with the unions "will be marked down in the history books as the moment in time Democrats lost whatever advantage they thought they have in the suburbs."

A recent focus group of Virginia parents conducted by N2 America, a center-right organization that focuses on America’s suburbs, found that a majority of parents disapprove of how the state has handled public education during the pandemic and view the unions more negatively than they did before the coronavirus pandemic.

"The unions have been exposed as the major obstacle to school reopenings," Generra Peck, a senior adviser for N2 America, told the Free Beacon. "The politicians that do their bidding are ignoring kids and parents—while the science says it is safe for schools to reopen. It makes no sense."

Union demands that students be vaccinated before returning to the classroom will be nearly impossible to meet—neither of the two vaccines being widely distributed in the United States are approved for children. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that the demands are excessive—peer-reviewed studies conclude that transmission of COVID-19 in schools is "extremely rare."

Though Northam has called for schools to reopen on March 15, the order is nonbinding and the date of return could still be pushed back. The VEA says March 15 is an "arbitrary date."