Republicans Seize on Shuttered Schools as a Political Rallying Cry

WASHINGTON — When Senate Republicans sought recently to wall off some federal education aid from schools that decline to reopen once teachers can be vaccinated, a top Democrat accused them of staging a “political show.” If it was, it was a show Republicans were more than happy to put on.

Sensing a potent political opportunity amid parental angst across the country, leading congressional Republicans have begun to hammer relentlessly on President Biden, Democrats and teachers’ unions to open schools quickly. They say doing so is a crucial and long overdue step to keep school-age Americans from falling too far behind amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But the effort to turn shuttered school buildings into a rallying cry is also a way for Republicans to appeal to suburban voters and women — two groups it has been hemorrhaging in the Trump era — as Mr. Biden and his administration struggle to keep their pledge to reopen schools within 100 days.

“It is a good issue because people care about it,” said Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 4 Republican and the author of the budget provision, which was rejected on party lines. “I think everybody is hearing the same thing from their constituents: Kids are not learning what they ought to learn, and this is having a huge impact on the way families hope to live.”

Mr. Blunt was one of multiple Republicans, including Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, speaking out on the Senate floor and in committees in recent days about the urgent need to return students to in-person learning.

Republicans say the effort was not coordinated, but happened organically as senators saw the emergence of a driving concern among voters. They argue that they have an advantage on the issue over Democrats, who are politically allied with unions representing teachers who have reservations about returning to school grounds while the pandemic persists.

“While the Biden administration’s own scientists say schools could reopen safely now with smart and simple precautions, their proposal buys into the myth from big labor that schools should stay shut a lot longer,” Mr. McConnell said this week, referring to Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan.

Democrats contend that Republicans have only recently begun agitating for schools to be reopened and never put similar pressure on the Trump administration to do so, reluctant to undermine their own party’s president. And they say that a major reason it has been so difficult for schools to return to normal is that former President Donald J. Trump did a poor job managing the pandemic.

They say the issue will ultimately play to their party’s advantage if Mr. Biden can deliver on his school reopening pledge — a promise the White House has been redefining as it confronts the difficulty of the task and pushback from a key constituency in organized labor.

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged that K-12 schools be reopened and offered a plan for doing so speedily.

For now, Democrats argue that Republicans are actually making the job harder by proposing to impose conditions on schools that could complicate reopening, rather than ease it.

“If we withhold funds and schools cannot implement health-safety protocols, then we are acting counter to actually bringing students back into the classroom,” said Senator Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who leads the health and education committee.

Ms. Murray was the one who accused Mr. Blunt and other Republicans who tried to alter the budget blueprint with such a condition of mounting a political show.

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Republicans may have good reason to do so.

“School closures have radicalized suburban mothers for the last six months,” said John Feehery, a former top House Republican official who has been clamoring for in-person learning to resume. “Republicans are smart to focus on this issue.”

He predicted that if Mr. Biden fails to settle on a workable plan to reopen schools, “the G.O.P. will have its No. 1 issue to take back the House.”

Like their counterparts in the Senate, House Republicans have tried to capitalize on the issue. As an array of House panels worked this week to solidify the details of Mr. Biden’s pandemic aid package, Republicans used an Education and Labor Committee meeting to force a series of votes that would have established requirements for reopening once vaccines are available. Democrats defeated them all, but Republicans got them on the record doing so.

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    Mr. Biden had promised to get schools open in his first 100 days, but has been scaling back that ambitious plan almost ever since, narrowing it to cover kindergarten through eighth grade, and then to most schools, while expanding the definition of what constitutes “open.” The administration has emphasized that safety has to be paramount in deciding when students can return to the classroom.

    “The president will not rest until every school is open five days a week. That is our goal,” said Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary. Ms. Psaki said the administration was “leaning into science.”

    “We are letting the science and medical experts lead,” she added.

    Given the administration’s focus on experts, Republicans such as Mr. McConnell eagerly jumped on comments by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the C.D.C. director, that schools could safely reopen even if teachers were not yet vaccinated.

    The White House quickly walked back that comment, but the guidelines issued on Friday said that teachers need not be vaccinated before schools reopen, instead recommending an approach that includes testing of staff members and students, and other mitigation measures.

    Mr. Blunt’s plan, offered during a wide-ranging budget debate, would have denied schools added pandemic financial assistance if they refused to reopen once teachers were vaccinated. But Democrats objected.

    “Vaccines are just one piece of safely transitioning back,” said Ms. Murray, the leading Democratic opponent.

    The amendment failed as the parties divided 50-50, an outcome that Mr. Blunt, who is up for re-election himself next year, said Democrats might regret when the 2022 midterm elections roll around.

    “I think more than 90 percent of families with kids at home would say Democrats made a mistake in opposing my amendment,” he said.

    Republicans have made it clear they do not intend to let go of the issue.

    “People are feeling there has been a lot of arbitrariness and a lot of double standards in the way people have been treated,” Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said about the backlash to continued school closings. “At some point, this has to end. There is obvious harm being done to kids.”

    Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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