The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Gosh, fights about schools might be hyped

First lady Jill Biden during a visit to a pediatric covid-19 vaccination clinic at Franklin Sherman Elementary School in McLean, Va., on Nov. 8. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

According to GOP politicians and right-wing media, a battle is raging between American parents and schools trying to impose mask requirements and other protections against covid-19. And mainstream cable news outlets suggest that shouting matches are breaking out all over the country and that school closures contributed to Democrats’ travails in this month’s elections in New Jersey and Virginia.

In the real world, however, there may be a whole lot less drama than the GOP messaging machine and click-hungry media outlets would have people believe.

The latest Monmouth poll finds “61% of the public supports requiring face masks to be worn in schools by students, teachers, and staff,” down only a few points since September. Meanwhile, “Support levels for school-based vaccine mandates remain stable for both teachers and staff (59%, compared to 60% in September) and students age 12 and older (53%, compared to 51% in September).”

As for the supposedly outraged parents, “60% support school mask mandates and 52% support teacher vaccine mandates,” although only 40 percent favor a vaccine mandate for kids age 12 and up. The bottom line: The numbers are steady, and President Biden continues to get high marks for handling the pandemic (53 percent approval).

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

Other polls confirm this data. Consider a recent Ipsos poll conducted for Axios on how schools handled covid-19. Education Week explains: “Seventy-five percent of parents and 71 percent of respondents overall said local schools were doing a very good or somewhat good job.” Chris Jackson, the senior vice president of Ipsos, is blunt about the difference between media hype and reality, telling Education Week, “If you just watched coverage of those elections, you sort of got the picture that there’s this popular revolt of parents just totally fed up with what’s going on.” He added: “The data suggests that’s not true at all — that in fact, most parents are actually pretty positive about how schools have handled the pandemic.”

Education Week also reports, “In a similar vein, the latest poll from the National Parents Union, an advocacy organization, found that 75 percent of parents thought their child’s school was doing an excellent or good job handling health and safety measures to prevent the spread of covid-19.”

What’s going on here? Well, it should shock no one that Republicans are attempting to stir up and exaggerate parental anger with school officials. As they are wont to do, the mainstream media, in turn, takes the GOP talking points as gospel and then focuses on a small minority of the country engaged in hostile confrontations. “Parents scream at school board!” attracts many more eyeballs than “By and large, parents are fine with schools’ covid-19 response.”

This is not to say that there are not plenty of frustrated parents, worn down by long school closures. And certainly a small sliver of right-wingers have become unhinged and have resorted to threatening public officials. But once again, the media’s preference for conflict and drama magnifies the divisions in the United States. In doing so, the media provides more fodder to Republicans bent on fanning anger and resentment toward “elites.”

The parental silent majority extends to race in education as well, although that would be hard to guess based on the GOP-induced media frenzy over critical race theory. The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released a study in August that found, “More than three quarters (76%) of Americans both agreed that teaching children about the history of racism in America will help our country move toward a healthier future and disagreed that is would hold our country back from making progress.” More Democrats than Republicans share this sentiment, but even among the latter, a significant majority (57 percent) is not inclined to airbrush the nation’s history of racism.

PRRI’s chief executive, Robert P. Jones, writes, “The anti-CRT crusades we are seeing today are the worst form of policy, designed not to redress an actual social problem ... but to sow resentment that is useful to political campaigns and culture wars.” He concludes, “It’s clear that the anti-CRT rhetoric resonates among a small portion of the Republican base, particularly those dialed in to Fox News. But it’s hopeful that broad swaths of the country, including solid majorities of Republicans overall, today believe that teaching our children about this history of racism in America is something that will help move the country toward a healthier future.”

No wonder Republicans use the spooky, ill-defined “critical race theory” rather than say “teach about race in American history.”

Certainly, cultural issues and animosity exists in schools. The good news is that the vast majority of Americans approve reasonable covid-19 protections and accurate history instruction. The bad news is that Republicans are attempting to weaponize these issues, and worse, the media is helping them do it. The lesson here is that Democrats should take the high ground on these issues with confidence that most Americans agree with them.