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Liberal school board gets a lesson in pandemic politics

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The so-called “parents’ rights” movement that’s lifting Republicans’ hopes out in the country has some sway even in liberal San Francisco, where a campaign to recall three school board members will be decided by voters on Tuesday. Check in with CNN Politics for results Wednesday.
That doesn’t mean there’s about to be a conservative swell in the home city of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris. But it does mean frustration over school closures could have some unintended consequences.
What caused the backlash in San Francisco? CNN’s Gregory Krieg notes the storyline that has formed: San Francisco’s school board was focused on changing the names of 44 public schools at a time during the coronavirus pandemic when kids were not physically in school.
Then the city kept its schools closed longer than most other areas in the US.
“Even as early as May 2021, not a single school was ready for reopening. These individuals are using this to improve their careers, rather than focus on educating our kids,” Siva Raj, a recall organizer, told CNN, referring to the school board members.
Democrats divided. San Francisco Mayor London Breed — a Democrat who supported the city’s lawsuit against the Democratic school board to force schools to reopen — has endorsed the recall effort. Separately, it’s notable that Breed has also criticized the city’s progressive Democratic district attorney, Chesa Boudin, for focusing on helping criminals instead of victims.
If fundraising is an indication of outcome (it often is, but not always), the three board members should be worried.
The recall effort has raised nearly $2 million, while those defending the board members raised only $86,000, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
What does San Francisco have to do with the rest of the country? It’s a valid question.
CNN’s Ronald Brownstein writes that schools are dividing Democrats and creating openings for Republicans.
He sees a cocktail of three distinct things driving the recall effort:
  • Genuine grassroots discontent over extended school closings during the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Growing division among Democrats over how to respond to the pandemic.
  • Massive funding from longtime critics of public education and some big supporters of Republican political campaigns, including an ally of Betsy DeVos, former President Donald Trump’s education secretary.
Drafting behind the backlash. That frustration over Covid-19 restrictions is helping fuel and perhaps obscuring something that could have a much wider effect, especially in red states.
Brownstein notes “an aggressive drive by Republicans to censor how public school teachers talk about race, gender, sexual orientation and other sensitive topics.”
He compares that effort to state laws against the teaching of evolution in the 1920s and the rise of anti-Communist loyalty oaths for teachers during the Joe McCarthy era.
It’s a bait and switch of sorts, since while every parent is likely to have a very strong opinion on whether kids should be in school, it’s a smaller group that is worked up specifically over the curriculum.
Brownstein cites a recent CNN national poll that found education is a key factor heading into the November midterm elections.
Education is a broad topic. The content of curriculums was the top education concern of only about 1 in 4 of the people who said education would be an important factor in their votes.
After watching school board frustrations near my own house in Virginia, I think Brownstein and the polling are correct that parents are more concerned about their kids learning than fired up over what’s in the curriculum.
It’s notable that a main frustration cited about San Francisco was the board’s effort, which it has abandoned, to rename schools for social justice reasons during the pandemic. It considered changing the names of schools that honored everyone from Abraham Lincoln — not even freeing American slaves is good enough, apparently — to US Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
San Francisco clearly is its own special political universe, but there’s also the dropping of Covid-19 restrictions in multiple blue states and Democrat-led cities to consider.
First, a lesson up north. Promoters of vaccine requirements might be looking warily at Canada, where the protest of a vocal minority of truck drivers over these requirements for interstate travel has taken a new turn.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday invoked Canada’s Emergencies Act. It’s the first time in history that power has been applied.
More requirements eased in the US. Meanwhile in the US, Washington, DC, is among the latest places to drop a Covid-19 requirement. In DC’s case, it’s the rollback of a requirement for proof of vaccination to enter businesses. The rule, which had been in place only since December, ended Tuesday.
DC, along with several states, will lift its indoor mask requirement on March 1. Masks are still recommended indoors in the city and will still be required in schools.
Vermont is recommending an end to mask requirements for schools with high vaccination rates.
Live with it. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a moderate Republican running a blue state, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday that there’s “nearly universal, bipartisan support” in the US for beginning to ease Covid-19 restrictions and “finding a way to live with” the virus.
Meanwhile, California has not committed to ending its mask requirement for schools and will keep it at least through the end of February.
The Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson writes that general Covid-19 fatigue, alongside precipitously dropping infection rates — rather than anger over masks — is behind the new policies in blue states.
“I don’t know that deep-blue area American political figures are rolling back such mandates because their own voters are specifically calling for such mandates to be rolled back. Rather, they may just be responding to growing frustrations around the virus overall.”
She adds that people might just be ready to live alongside the disease.
“My polling still shows large and growing numbers (of) people are still worried about getting COVID! It’s that they may no longer think we can beat COVID,” she writes.
That sounds a lot like what New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said on CBS on Sunday: “… as best we can tell right now, this thing is going from pandemic to endemic.”
Still slow. You won’t hear this kind of direct talk from the federal government, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House — at least not yet. It means the country is moving faster than its government at the moment.
The potential recall of school board members in San Francisco means leaders need to keep their ears to the ground during tough times.
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