Read: Schools aren’t super-spreaders
In practice, though, progressives don’t always agree on what prudent policy looks like. Consider the experience of Somerville, Massachusetts, the kind of community where residents proudly display rainbow yard signs declaring In this house … we believe science is real. In the 2016 Democratic primary, 57 percent of voters there supported Bernie Sanders, and this year the Democratic Socialists of America have a shot at taking over the city council. As towns around Somerville began going back to in-person school in the fall, Mayor Joseph Curtatone and other Somerville leaders delayed a return to in-person learning. A group of moms—including scientists, pediatricians, and doctors treating COVID-19 patients—began to feel frustrated that Somerville schools weren’t welcoming back students. They considered themselves progressive and believed that they understood teachers’ worries about getting sick. But they saw the city’s proposed safety measures as nonsensical and unscientific—a sort of hygiene theater that prioritized the appearance of protection over getting kids back to their classrooms.
With Somerville kids still at home, contractors conducted in-depth assessments of the city’s school buildings, leading to proposals that included extensive HVAC-system overhauls and the installation of UV-sterilization units and even automatic toilet flushers—renovations with a proposed budget of $7.5 million. The mayor told me that supply-chain delays and protracted negotiations with the local teachers’ union slowed the reopening process. “No one wanted to get kids back to school more than me … It’s people needing to feel safe,” he said. “We want to make sure that we’re eliminating any risk of transmission from person to person in schools and carrying that risk over to the community.”
Months slipped by, and evidence mounted that schools could reopen safely. In Somerville, a local leader appeared to describe parents who wanted a faster return to in-person instruction as “fucking white parents” in a virtual public meeting; a community member accused the group of mothers advocating for schools to reopen of being motivated by white supremacy. “I spent four years fighting Trump because he was so anti-science,” Daniele Lantagne, a Somerville mom and engineering professor who works to promote equitable access to clean water and sanitation during disease outbreaks, told me. “I spent the last year fighting people who I normally would agree with … desperately trying to inject science into school reopening, and completely failed.”
In March, Erika Uyterhoeven, the democratic-socialist state representative for Somerville, compared the plight of teachers to that of Amazon workers and meatpackers, and described the return to in-person classes as part of a “push in a neoliberal society to ensure, over and above the well-being of educators, that our kids are getting a competitive education compared to other suburban schools.” (She later asked the socialist blog that ran her comments to remove that quote, because so many parents found her statements offensive.) In Somerville, “everyone wants to be actively anti-racist. Everyone believes Black lives matter. Everyone wants the Green New Deal,” Elizabeth Pinsky, a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, told me. “No one wants to talk about … how to actually get kindergartners onto the carpet of their teachers.” Most elementary and middle schoolers in Somerville finally started back in person this spring, with some of the proposed building renovations in place. Somerville hasn’t yet announced when high schoolers will go back full-time, and Curtatone wouldn’t guarantee that schools will be open for in-person instruction in the fall.