As School Closures Near First Anniversary, a Diverse Parent Movement Demands Action

Aquené Tyler, a mother and hair stylist in North Philadelphia, has been disappointed in her neighborhood’s public schools for many years. There were too few books and computers. Even before the pandemic, some schools were shuttered for asbestos removal.

Now, her 9-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter have been learning online for nearly a year, even as masked children gather boisterously at local private schools. Ms. Tyler’s children are lonely, and Mya, who is in eighth grade, seems depressed and overwhelmed by her class work. She has begun seeing a counselor remotely.

So Ms. Tyler is planning a radical change: moving her family to Florida, where the Republican-controlled state government has mandated that all districts provide in-person learning five days per week. A niece there is attending traditional public school in Sarasota, complete with sports, arts and music.

“Everywhere else, kids are given better opportunities and chances, other than Philadelphia,” she said. “It’s a slap in the face consistently.”

A year into the pandemic, less than half of students nationwide are attending public schools that offer traditional, full-time schedules. Now many parents are beginning to rebel, frustrated with the pace of reopening and determined to take matters into their own hands.

Some are making contingency plans to relocate, home-school or retreat to private education if their children’s routines continue to be disrupted this fall — a real possibility as some local school officials and teachers’ unions argue for aggressive virus mitigation measures to continue, potentially even after educators are vaccinated.

Other parents are filing lawsuits, agitating at public meetings, creating political action committees, or running for school board seats. Most recognize the potency of the coronavirus but believe schools can open safely, though they have a range of views on the best way to do so.

ImageMs. Tyler and her partner, Robert Montgomery, are eager to get their children back to in-person education — an option they still do not have in Philadelphia public schools.
Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

The Philadelphia region has become a focal point of such activism. Like many left-leaning metropolitan areas across the country, its elected officials, teachers’ unions and health agencies have urged strict caution, putting most districts on hybrid schedules, while some remain fully remote. In Philadelphia, where classrooms have been empty for a year, a reopening deal between the teachers’ union and district appears imminent, but is expected to bring back only a portion of the youngest students.

Parents who want a full reopening may not be a majority in Philadelphia or nationally. But their voices are growing louder.

“Prior to this pandemic, we didn’t ask questions” of local school officials, said Keven Gessner, a father of four and pharmaceutical executive who plans to run for school board in the Council Rock district in Bucks County, Pa. Elementary school buildings there are open four days per week — one day too few, in Mr. Gessner’s view.

“Kids are sitting in front of screens,” he said. “And that’s not healthy for children.”

Mr. Gessner, who is Korean American and whose children attend a district that is overwhelmingly middle-class and affluent, is in some ways typical of the activism behind reopening campaigns in places like Los Angeles or Chicago, which have often been led by college-educated parents, disproportionately white.

Surveys suggest that working-class parents of color whose communities have been harder hit by the coronavirus are less eager for in-person learning. But the rising frustration of parents like Ms. Tyler, who is Black and whose children attend predominantly Black schools, underscores that parent anger about closed schools is anything but monolithic.

Children in North Philadelphia “need a safe haven more than anybody else,” Ms. Tyler said. “They are not being thought about.”

Some parents have already withdrawn their children from public education, unwilling to wait and see. Preliminary data in Pennsylvania analyzed by WHYY shows that as of October, public school enrollment had fallen 6.9 percent in the state’s most populous counties, a shortfall of over 50,000 children.

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Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

If these families do not return to public education, it could have a significant impact on school budgets, which are tied to the number of children who enroll. Even modest dips in funding can force districts to cut tutoring, extracurricular activities or foreign languages.

Parents who are angry about shuttered schools could also rejigger the politics of public education. Democratic-leaning parents may join their conservative counterparts in becoming distrustful of the teachers’ unions that are slowing reopening timelines, and turn to options the unions oppose, like private school vouchers or non-unionized charter schools.

Ms. Tyler, for example, said she would welcome the opportunity for a taxpayer-funded scholarship to enroll her children in private school.

Even so, for some parents in the Philadelphia region, the prospect of abandoning public school is deeply emotional, prompting a reckoning with their own values.

“We believe in the value of public education,” said Chad Williams, a father of four in the Philadelphia suburbs. “Or we did.”

Frustrated when the Unionville-Chadds Ford district’s long closure gave way to only part-time schedules for most middle and high school students, he and his wife, both lawyers, enrolled their 11th-grader in private school, and are home-schooling their 12- and 14-year-olds. He is a supporter of Open PA Schools, a group that filed a lawsuit against the state and several districts, arguing that extended virtual learning violates Pennsylvania law. The case is pending.

Mr. Williams also plans to testify to the State Senate this week, where he will argue in favor of a full reopening and against “indefinite” mask mandates in schools. A draft of his testimony questions the quality of studies on the efficacy of masking and states, “There is no evidence that children or adolescents are ‘spreaders’ of this virus.”

While children appear to spread the virus less efficiently than adults, research suggests that they do, in fact, have the ability to transmit it, and that breaches in mask use have likely contributed to in-school spread.

National Republican groups hope disaffected parents will be the potential soccer mom swing voters of the 2022 midterms. They are putting up billboards in Pennsylvania and other swing states blaming Democrats and their union allies for extended school closures. Donald Trump Jr. recently posted a video on the subject.

Polling shows that while voters view education as important, they tend to rank it below issues such as health care, the economy and race relations.

Instead, shuttered schools may breed cynicism toward public institutions across the political spectrum.

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Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

“The more we see, the more faith we lose in our system,” said Clarice Schillinger, another suburban parent.

She pointed out that for many districts, the policy of maintaining six feet of distance between desks has forestalled the ability to serve all students five days per week.

Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said, “The science has not been clear enough about the spread and vaccines, so it’s still the responsible move to make sure that after vaccination is accomplished — and that will take quite some time — that you still wear a mask and still social distance.”

The unions are a major player in Pennsylvania politics, and although they are most closely tied to Democrats, give to Republican legislators as well.

Parent activists like Ms. Schillinger are beginning to directly take on the unions and critique the six-feet standard, which federal guidelines suggest is ideal but not required. Ms. Schillinger launched a political action committee, the Keeping Kids in School PAC, to support school board candidates, including Mr. Gessner, who want the option for five days per week of in-person learning.

The group is in touch with more than 60 potential candidates, and is encouraging them to run simultaneously on the Democratic and Republican tickets, which is allowed in Pennsylvania school board races.

Ms. Schillinger previously worked for a Republican state legislator, but like hundreds of thousands of other American women, has been unable to hold a job during the pandemic, in part because of the need to assist her two children with remote learning, she said. She eventually pulled her 9-year-old son out of the Hatboro-Horsham district and enrolled him in a fully open Catholic school.

Ms. Schillinger had been a teen parent and strove to establish herself professionally, she noted.

“I have fought and climbed my way up to make this American dream, and I’ve done it. It’s been completely ripped away,” she said, her voice breaking. “Now I have left employment. I’m taking care of my kids. I am fighting for my children and I will not stop.”

Her PAC is working with parents in the Norristown Area School District, just northwest of Philadelphia. The district is operating fully remotely, and on Feb. 22 its school board voted to push back a phased transition to hybrid learning to April 5.

The district is largely Black and Latino, and its coronavirus rates have been higher than those in wealthier areas, a factor that both the school board president and teachers’ union president cited in explaining why its extended closure was justified.

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Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

Nevertheless, about half of parents in the district indicated that they wanted in-person learning for their children.

One of them is Lisa Engleman, a homemaker with two teenagers. Before the pandemic, her son Mason, a high school senior, had been motivated by the requirement to earn solid grades to play on the football team. With the season canceled and classes moved online, she made the decision to send him to live with his grandmother in a nearby, higher-income town. Mason now attends in-person public school there and was able to get back on the football field.

“I just need him to graduate,” Ms. Engleman said.

“We feel the district is taking advantage of our disadvantage. Not only are we a minority school, but we face economic and financial troubles,” added Ms. Engleman, who is multiracial. “I don’t think the school district thought parents would get together and fight this.”

In Philadelphia, Priscilla Lo, an advertising executive and mother of an 11-year-old, founded a Facebook group called Philadelphians for Open Schools. Its members are appealing to the City Council and other officials.

She has watched friends move to suburbs where their children can get at least some days of in-classroom learning. “Rich kids can go to school, but poor kids can’t,” she said. “How is that fair?”

Ms. Lo questioned the Philadelphia teachers’ union’s demand that the district improve school ventilation before reopening. She noted that her husband, a doctor, had been treating Covid patients and taking the subway to work throughout the pandemic, and that living with risk was an unfortunate reality.

But across town, Ms. Tyler, the hair stylist and a graduate of the local public schools, said she did not blame the union for holding up the return to in-person learning that her children need; rather, she faulted the city for years of neglect of aging school buildings.

“I feel like the school district has failed them,” she said of her children — a failure she hopes to leave behind with her family’s move to Florida.

“I can’t do it here anymore,” she added.

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

Some are making contingency plans to relocate, home-school or retreat to private education if their children’s routines continue to be disrupted this fall — a real possibility as some local school officials and teachers’ unions argue for aggressive virus mitigation measures to continue, potentially even after educators are vaccinated.

Other parents are filing lawsuits, agitating at public meetings, creating political action committees, or running for school board seats. Most recognize the potency of the coronavirus but believe schools can open safely, though they have a range of views on the best way to do so.

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