Few politicians have navigated the coronavirus pandemic as ably as Maryland’s Larry Hogan. A study released in late July found that 76 percent of his state approved of the way the two-term Republican has handled the outbreak—the best rating of any governor and some 26 points higher than the national average.

Throughout the crisis, Hogan has relied heavily on expert advice. And he’s delegated authority, including over schools, to localities. The state’s largest school district, Montgomery County, announced on July 21 that public schools would be closed through January 29, 2021. Ten days after the announcement, however, Hogan’s strategy came close to backfiring. Why? Because a Montgomery County health official forced private schools to close as well, at least until October.

Within hours, Hogan denounced the move on Twitter. And by August 3, he had issued a new executive order denying local officials the ability to make such sweeping decisions. “Private and parochial schools deserve the same opportunity and flexibility to make reopening decisions based on public health guidelines,” he said in a statement. “The blanket closure imposed by Montgomery County was overly broad and inconsistent with the powers intended to be delegated to the county health officer.”

Translation: The fate of private schools will be decided on a case-by-case basis, as events warrant.

The battle of Montgomery County was the first skirmish in the next campaign of the great school wars. There are more than 13,500 regular school districts in the United States and some 40,000 private, parochial, and public charter schools. Each has spent the summer scrambling to decide whether to begin the year with in-person, online, or hybrid instruction. Their choices will affect more than the education of students. They also will go a long way to determine enrollment and school budgets for years to come.

It was parental outrage that spurred Hogan to react so quickly. The transition to online education last spring was a disaster. “New research suggests that by September, most students will have fallen behind where they would have been if they had stayed in classrooms, with some losing the equivalent of a full school year’s worth of academic gains,” the New York Times reported in June. The loss is most pronounced among disadvantaged students. One study by McKinsey & Company, the Times went on, estimates learning losses “equivalent to 10 months for black children and nine months for Latinos.”

The sustained absence from the classroom puts an entire generation at risk. “The harms attributed to closed schools on the social, emotional, and behavioral health, economic well-being, and academic achievement of children, in both the short- and long-term, are well-known and significant,” the Centers for Disease Control said in July. The American Association of Pediatrics agreed: “All policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

Many parents have withdrawn their children from public schools upon hearing that instruction will be online-only for the indefinite future. I am one of them. My son and daughter will be attending a Jewish day school in September—provided that my local health official doesn’t pull a Montgomery County. Switching schools wasn’t an easy call. Having attended public schools from first through 12th grade, I was eager for my kids to have a similar experience.

The coronavirus ended that possibility. It’s not just because of public-health concerns, which are real. It’s also because political polarization and interest-group maneuvering have turned a complex debate that should be conducted with nuance, an appreciation of difference, an eye for trade-offs, and the children’s best interests always in mind into a moralistic, absolutist shout-fest filled with cheap shots and alarmism.

The science is not the determining factor. Jon Valant of the Brookings Institution combined three databases: One contained school reopening plans, another had county-level COVID-19 infection numbers, and the third was of 2016 presidential results by county. “In reality, there is no relationship—visually or statistically—between school districts’ reopening decisions and their county’s new COVID-19 cases per capita,” he wrote. “In contrast, there is a strong relationship—visually and statistically—between districts’ reopening decisions and the county-level support for Trump in the 2016 election.” Officials in counties that Trump won want schools open. Officials in counties that he lost want them closed.

One variable not included in the Brookings analysis was the political pull of teachers’ unions. My suspicion is that in-person instruction will be denied most often where the unions hold the most sway, and these will just happen to be the same places that vote in large numbers for Democratic presidential candidates—and where school closures are most likely to exacerbate inequality.

The teachers’ unions have other priorities. In July the Los Angeles Teachers Union demanded that schools remain closed until the police are defunded, the number of private schools capped, taxes imposed, and Medicare for All and Nancy Pelosi’s $3 trillion HEROES Act passed into law. A coalition of activist groups, including teachers’ unions in Chicago, Boston, Milwaukee, Little Rock, Oakland, and Racine, joined forces with the Democratic Socialists of America to declare August 3 a “day of resistance.” They called for “police-free schools,” moratoriums on charter schools, on school vouchers, and on standardized testing, and “support for our communities and families, including canceling rents and mortgages, a moratorium on evictions/foreclosures, providing direct cash assistance to those not able to work or who are unemployed, and other critical social needs.” The American Federation of Teachers has authorized local affiliates to participate in “safety strikes” if teachers do not want to return to the classroom, with president Randi Weingarten singling out red states such as Texas, Florida, and Arizona for potential action.

This resistance to beginning the school year on time, and at least partly in person, has created a terrible dynamic between parents and teachers. What should be a consensual partnership in the education of young people has been revealed once again as an adversarial contest between a dispersed and heterogeneous group of voters and a concentrated and monopolistic special interest.

The unions stand to be embarrassed if widespread school closures result in dropping enrollments, rising levels of homeschooling, and growing calls for vouchers and other forms of aid to private and parochial schools. And the unions would lose money. Walter Olson of the Cato Institute wondered why Montgomery County closed private schools until October 1. What was it about that exact date? It turns out that September 30 is the cutoff for enrollment. “Many real-world consequences, including but not limited to the magnitude of state and federal grants, depend on the count as of that date,” Olson wrote. Montgomery County Public Schools officials had said that enrollment for the 2020–2021 school year is lower than expected.

“The safety issues here are complex and I don’t know what the right answers are, or whether there is exactly one such right answer for all kids and schools,” Olson sagely continued. Of course there is no single answer. Which is why the debate over school reopening should be granular and flexible. We should be open to not only different approaches but also different types of schools. Overzealous bureaucrats never seem to learn that they shouldn’t interfere in the upbringing of children. And Larry Hogan won an early victory in a fight that will matter to voters in 2024.

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