In California, Governor Gavin Newsom is already facing attacks from Republicans and a fellow Democrat as he heads into a recall election later this year. Meanwhile, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy is trying to balance complicated state and local politics in the lead-up to his own reelection bid this fall. Murphy has already seen the effects of the Biden administration’s national strategy for vaccine production and other pandemic-mitigation measures, he told me. Murphy isn’t focused yet on his campaign or how this or other issues might play into it, he added, but he was proud to tick through the progress his state has made since the lockdown began. More than 900,000 of New Jersey’s 1.3 million children are now participating in at least some form of in-person education, and Murphy hopes to get all students back to school in person, Monday through Friday, by September 1. For the interim, Murphy’s administration has provided students with hundreds of thousands of computers for remote learning. (A year ago, 231,000 New Jersey students didn’t have access to a computer. As of this month, that number is down to just 39 students statewide, according to the Murphy administration.)
But New Jersey also hosts some of the nation’s most intractable fights over reopening—most notably in Montclair, in the northern part of the state, where teachers have gone to court to fight against returning to their classrooms.
Murphy is a father of four, with two children still in high school, so he said he feels the impact of the school-reopening battle at home. “Is your kids’ education at or near the top of any mom or dad’s list of things that are important to them in life? Absolutely. There’s no two ways about that—and it’s more so in the pandemic,” he told me. He said he’s confident he’ll have good news by the fall. “Some states compete by having the lowest taxes. Some states compete by having no capacity limits in their restaurants or no requirements to wear face masks,” he said. “We compete with the No. 1 public-education system in America, and we intend to keep it that way.”
In the meantime, the standoffs around the country among politicians, parents, and teachers have the potential to fuel voter backlash. Parents who want their kids back in the classroom and on the playground are unlikely to be satisfied by the addition of critical race theory to curricula or the removal of Lincoln’s and Washington’s names from schools. Trump “spoke to” many Americans’ anger about school closures, Cooper told me. It’s not hard to see how Republicans other than Trump could capitalize on that anger.
The Biden administration’s goal is to have the majority of K–8 students in at least some form of in-person school by the end of next month, Cardona told NBC News last week. Cooper isn’t impressed. Everyone involved could do more if they wanted to, he said. The CDC’s decision to reduce the six-foot social-distancing restriction in schools to three feet, which will facilitate having children in classrooms, is a change he was hoping for. (Weingarten says she’s not yet ready to say that schools should accept that change.) But there’s more to do. He has his own children on a waitlist for a Catholic school that has been open for months, and he said he would eagerly move his children there if given the chance. Weingarten’s response on the CDC change, he told me, shows that “nothing’s ever going to be good enough. They’re only willing to listen to the science that allows them to give an excuse to the large districts, which remain closed.”
“If Jill Biden, Randi Weingarten, and [CDC Director] Rochelle Walensky said tomorrow, ‘Schools should open five days a week as soon as possible,’ they would be open in a few weeks,” Cooper said. “They have incredible power, yet they act powerless when they’re asked for support.”