School vaccine mandates for Covid-19 are not happening

Originally published in Vox on August 8, 2022.

For the third summer in a row, school leaders are facing the question of what — if anything — they’re going to do to stop the spread of Covid-19 when students return to classrooms.

One thing is clear: Almost none of them will be requiring vaccines.

Just 31 percent of children between 5 and 11 in the US have been fully vaccinated, and 61 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds have been. (Only about 3 percent of children under 5 had received a first dose by July 20.)

Still, no state in the country is planning to require student vaccinations, a marked turnaround from where things seemed to be headed last winter, when multiple states and school districts suggested vaccine mandates were coming soon. Only Washington, DC, has announced a mandatory school vaccine policy this fall, for students 12 and older.

Other mitigation measures — from masks to ventilation — may also be on their way out. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will likely soon recommend easing school testing, quarantine, and social distancing requirements, CNN reported last week. (Many schools often disregarded CDC guidelines, but the update is a sign of how expectations have shifted.)

Burbio, a company that specializes in aggregating school calendars, reported that so far, the vast majority of school districts it tracks nationwide will not be requiring masks this fall. And a June CDC study found just under 40 percent of American public schools had replaced or upgraded their HVAC systems to provide improved ventilation.

For the last three years, school requirements — closed or open? masks on or off? — have been a battleground in the culture war over Covid-19. Fear of wading back into the polarized fights over vaccination is one reason school leaders have backed away from requiring the shots. So is the fact that vaccines for children under 12 are not yet fully approved by the FDA.

But an even bigger factor might be mass indifference: American adults are more hesitant to vaccinate their kids, especially younger kids, than they were to get shots themselves. And no influential health group or federal agency is pushing states to require them to do so.

How California backtracked on vaccine mandates

In October 2021, California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom was the first in the nation to announce a planned Covid-19 vaccine mandate for K-12 students once the FDA had fully approved the shots. He said at the time that it could take effect as early as January.

Some school districts in the state tried to impose vaccine mandates that would take effect even earlier. Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the nation, announced in September 2021 that students 12 and older must be fully vaccinated by December 19, or switch to online schooling. In Oakland, California, the school board passed a similar vaccine requirement in late September for eligible students, with a deadline of January 1. The Pfizer vaccine for 16- and 17-year-olds had been fully approved in August, while the shots for 12- to 15-year-olds were still under FDA’s emergency use authorization.

By December 2021, facing both political and legal pressure, school leaders pushed back the vaccine mandates to the start of the 2022-23 school year. LAUSD board president Kelly Gonez has said their decision was “not about conceding to a vocal minority of anti-vaxxers,” although those who oppose mandatory Covid vaccines hailed the delay as a victory.

But as 2022 continued, pressure for youth Covid-19 vaccines declined. A state lawmaker in California who had introduced a bill to require Covid-19 vaccines for K-12 students withdrew it in April, saying that focus needed to be on ensuring access to the vaccine. The same week, the California Department of Public Health announced it would no longer add the Covid-19 vaccine to its list of mandated childhood vaccines for public schools because they had not all yet received full FDA approval. The earliest the requirement would take effect, they said, was July 2023. Individual school districts like Los Angeles followed suit.

A California health department spokesperson told Vox that the state was waiting “to ensure sufficient time for successful implementation of new vaccine requirements.” As of last month, the vaccines are now fully approved for ages 12 and up, but not yet for younger children. The California health agency also said even after all the shots receive full approval, officials would still take into consideration other health group recommendations before issuing a new mandate.

Louisiana, likewise, retreated on a student vaccine mandate Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards announced last November. New Orleans Public Schools is the only district in the state to require students to be vaccinated against Covid-19, though policy enforcement has been mixed. New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who said in January he was considering a student vaccine mandate for the fall, quietly dropped the idea, scaling it back to a requirement for students participating in certain sports and other “high-risk” extracurriculars like choir.

Why districts have been loath to require Covid vaccines for students

The California situation illustrates the several factors at play in schools’ reluctance to require vaccines.

One issue is the lack of full FDA approval for vaccines for younger children. The US Supreme Court has endorsed states’ authority to require student vaccines, but many policymakers were wary of testing that legal authority for Covid-19 shots that had only received emergency use authorization. (The Justice Department issued a memo last summer saying schools could legally do this, but the threat of defending those decisions in court was both real and unappealing.)

As a result, even once youth vaccines became available, leaders hesitated to require them without full FDA approval. But now the FDA has fully approved vaccines for teens and adolescents, and that still hasn’t led states or districts to require the shots for older kids.

Policymakers are also wrestling with the fact that the virus is much less deadly for children compared to adults. (Approximately 1,180 of the more than 1 million Americans who have died of the virus were 17 or younger, though health experts stress vaccination can still help protect against these rare outcomes.) Kids can also catch the virus in school and spread it back at home to their more vulnerable parents and grandparents, but that risk became easier to tolerate once adult vaccines were approved.

Most school districts were wary of igniting another public school culture war battle at a time when students were still struggling to regain academic and social skills lost during the pandemic. On the eve of the anniversary of the January 6 riot, former President Donald Trump blasted President Joe Biden for supposed “talk” that his administration might enforce a vaccine mandate for school children and urged “MAGA nation” to rise up against any such requirements. (The Biden administration has not publicly discussed any student vaccine mandate.)

Conservative law firms were also helping to mount legal challenges against proposed Covid-19 vaccine requirements, and groups fighting mask and vaccine mandates have insisted there is no reason to vaccinate kids to protect more vulnerable populations.

Polling also indicated that many parents were not eager to have their kids get the shots, and administrators felt hesitant to impose any rules that could keep vulnerable students — particularly Black and Latino students — out of in-person learning for even longer than they already endured.

The Covid-19 Vaccine Monitor, run by the Kaiser Family Foundation, reported recently that parents’ intentions to vaccinate their older children have remained relatively steady since the start of the year: About six in 10 parents of those aged 12-17 say their child has been vaccinated (57 percent); about 30 percent say they will definitely not get their teen vaccinated. Eight percent said they will only vaccinate their child if required.

Covid vaccination uptake is even lower among children ages 5-11, and nearly half of parents of that age group either say they will only get them vaccinated if required to do so (10 percent) or say they definitely won’t (37 percent).

While all demographic groups in the KFF study expressed concerns about long-term effects and side effects, Black and Hispanic parents also voiced more concerns over the logistics of getting their kids vaccinated.

Jeremy Singer, an education policy researcher who has been studying Covid-19 school reopenings, said it’s notable that resistance to youth Covid-19 vaccine requirements is present in nearly all school districts. One reason why, he said, may be what school districts are hearing from parents and community members.

“District leaders may still be feeling risk-averse, but at this point the ‘riskier’ thing for them could be to impose an unpopular mandate,” he said.

In January 2022, Singer and his colleagues surveyed Detroit parents on whether they supported or opposed various health measures. “Parents expressed overwhelming support for almost every measure … except vaccine mandates for staff and especially students, for which there was a lot more ambivalence,” he said of their findings, which are not yet published.

National groups and federal agencies aren’t pushing for vaccine mandates

Back in February, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona wrote in a letter to schools, “The #1 tool we have available right now to make sure our schools remain safe and open for all students is vaccination,” and encouraged schools to provide information and host clinics. But the department has stopped short of encouraging schools to require the shots. Elaine Quesinberry, a spokesperson for the Education Department, referred Vox’s questions about student Covid-19 vaccines to the CDC, and the CDC did not return a request for comment.

The CDC’s last updated schools guidance, posted in late May, does not recommend schools require the shot, though encourages schools doing targeted outreach to promote it. A White House spokesperson declined earlier this year to say if Biden would support schools requiring Covid-19 vaccines for students if the vaccines had received full FDA approval.

Susan Martin, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, referred Vox to their policy statement recommending Covid-19 vaccines for all eligible children, and their interim guidance on safe schools, which says Covid vaccination and boosters should be encouraged.

Even teacher unions — which were influential in shaping school reopening decisions in the 2020-21 school year — have not staked out youth vaccination as a dealbreaker for safe in-person learning. An NEA spokesperson said, “Our position on vaccines have not been changed or updated at this point” and referred Vox to a position statement published in December 2020, which said parents should follow vaccine guidelines from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Back in October 2021, the last time the American Federation of Teachers released a formal statement on youth vaccines, president Randi Weingarten said “vaccine approval will be critical to keeping our kids safe and healthy, and making sure our schools stay open and remain safe and welcoming for all.” In a statement to Vox, Weingarten said the group is awaiting “full authorization by the FDA to inform requirements for kids — but in the meantime we must ensure the other guardrails, including revamped ventilation, are in place.”

Washington, DC, is moving forward with its student vaccine requirement

The big exception is in the nation’s capital. In late December, Washington, DC, councilmembers voted overwhelmingly in favor of legislation requiring all eligible students to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

The bill set a vaccination deadline for March 1, 2022, though enforcement was delayed until the start of the 2022-23 school year, a concession to help keep students in school. At the time, just over 60 percent of DC young people ages 12-17 had received their two shots.

Last month the city announced it would move forward with its back-to-school vaccination policy, requiring Covid-19 vaccines for all students ages 12 and older within the first 20 school days. DC is also ramping up outreach and enforcement for its other required youth vaccinations — like measles and mumps — which the city didn’t enforce strictly last year, and students fell behind on.

“I think one thing that is important to know in terms of how DC is moving forward is we’re not just talking about the Covid vaccination, we are having a conversation about routine child immunization, and the Covid vaccine just happens to be a part of the series where kids need to get caught up,” said Christina Henderson, a DC councilmember and the lead sponsor of the bill requiring Covid-19 vaccines for students.

Henderson said their effort this year involves more concerted help from pediatricians, school leaders, and public health officials, to stress the importance of vaccination and to relay the evidence that millions of young people by now have safely received the shots.

Henderson pointed to the recent case of an unvaccinated 20-year-old with polio, and stressed that this is not the time to waver on the importance of pediatric vaccination. “We also know mandates work,” she added, noting that while many teen athletes were initially ambivalent about getting vaccinated, following DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s vaccination requirement to participate in sports last September, even hesitant students got their shots.

The Washington Post reported in late July that about 85 percent of DC students ages 12-15 have been vaccinated against Covid-19, but just 60 percent of Black children in that age range have been.

“If one school has a high unvaccinated rate of students, then we will bring a mobile vaccine clinic there,” Henderson said. “We are not going to assume that parents are purposely saying ‘I don’t want to get my child covered.’ It might just be they were away all summer and didn’t know about it, or didn’t have time.”

Kathryn Lynch-Morin, a spokesperson for DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education, told Vox that city agencies have been coordinating closely with schools to support them with technical assistance, guidance, and outreach to families.

“Our children belong in school with their friends and teachers who care about them,” she said. “But, we know if an outbreak of one of these serious or deadly diseases were to occur, it could have a harmful impact on our children, families, and staff. We also know that vaccinations save lives.”

Student Vaccine Mandates Are The Next Political Crisis

Originally published in The Intercept on February 6, 2022.
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IT WASN’T SUPPOSED to take this long to fully approve Covid-19 vaccines for the nearly 17 million U.S. adolescents ages 12-15 and the 28 million children ages 5-11.

Back in early August, Lee Beers, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, sent a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration urging the agency to move faster and questioning its request for extra follow-up data before emergency authorization. “We urge the FDA to carefully consider the impact of this decision on the timeline for authorizing a vaccine,” Beers wrote. “There is no biological plausibility for serious adverse immunological or inflammatory events to occur more than two months after COVID-19 vaccine administration.”

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg put the situation more bluntly. “The problem is that the F.D.A. won’t be blamed for avoidable Covid cases the same way it would be blamed for unexpected vaccine side effects,” she wrote. “All of its institutional incentives therefore point toward excessive wariness.”

That excessive wariness has dragged on as summer bled into fall, fall into winter, and winter into a new Covid spike from the omicron variant, which infected school-aged children at a much higher rate. The FDA finally granted emergency authorization for Pfizer shots for those ages 5-11 in late October, but the vaccines are still not fully approved. Groups fighting vaccine mandates have taken advantage of the regulatory stall, preparing legal battles that heighten doubt not only in Covid-19 shots but also in public health and government more broadly.

The slow-walking by the FDA has also set the stage for student vaccinations to become the next major Covid-related crisis for the Biden administration. Schools have mandated pediatric vaccinations for hundreds of years, but states and school districts have been fearful of provoking yet another polarized debate around public schools, following pandemic battles over school closures and masks. While the FDA maintains the vaccines, including those under emergency authorization, are safe and effective for children, many parents now say they worry about the expedited process and question whether it’s worth it for kids not at high risk of severe disease. Republicans, looking ahead to the midterms, are taking note.

Most states have avoided calling for students to get vaccinated against Covid-19, and those that have, like California and Louisiana, have said rules won’t take effect until next school year, and then only if the vaccines receive full authorization by the FDA. Already 17 states, mostly GOP-controlled, have passed legislation banning student Covid vaccine mandates — and one piece of litigation challenging vaccine requirements in California is now a contender for Supreme Court consideration. The hope among vaccine proponents is that by September 2022, more youth vaccines will be fully approved and communities will have had more time to build buy-in from hesitant families.

Public health experts have watched this hesitancy with dread, worried about the opportunities vaccine skeptics have now to undermine other routine mandatory vaccinations, as opponents insist that inoculation should be about personal choice and autonomy. Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, supports student vaccine requirements and fears those opposed to vaccines — who have been heartily embraced by conservatives — are getting emboldened by the Supreme Court striking down President Joe Biden’s employer mandate. “Over the last two years we’ve seen a lot of movement with the anti-vaccine movement, and we’re going to see spillover to other vaccines,” he said. “I think we’re already seeing that with the HPV vaccine for teenagers.”

Biden, meanwhile, has avoided taking a clear position on student vaccine requirements and nonpartisan state health officials have largely stayed quiet, even as a patchwork of conflicting new local policies have emerged. This represents a departure from his support of school staff vaccination requirements; in September, he called on governors to mandate vaccines for all school staff, and he’s also endorsed vaccine mandates for workers across the country. But thus far, the Biden administration has demurred weighing in, endorsing instead voluntary strategies like encouraging schools to host their own vaccine clinics. In December, Biden announced new plans, including allowing parents to schedule family vaccination appointments at pharmacies, and establishing mobile family vaccine clinics through FEMA.

The White House’s efforts to avoid clarifying its position on student mandates have grown more conspicuous, accentuating a general void in leadership on Covid-19 response. The Intercept asked the White House if it would support schools requiring Covid-19 vaccines for students if the vaccines had received full FDA approval. Matt Hill, a Biden spokesperson, said the question should be directed to the FDA. An FDA spokesperson told The Intercept the question “about the Biden administration is best suited for the White House.” Hill did not respond to additional requests for comment. The Department of Education did not return requests for comment.

BECAUSE HARDLY ANY student Covid vaccine requirements have gone into effect, no one quite knows what will happen when they do. Policymakers feel understandably hesitant to impose any rules that could keep vulnerable students — particularly Black and Latino students — out of in-person learning for even longer than they’ve already endured.

Like school reopenings and mask requirements, many local policymakers have been waiting to see what neighboring jurisdictions do on student vaccines before taking action themselves. Recently New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced he would consider a Covid-19 vaccine mandate for K-12 students to take effect by the fall, a move that would affect the largest public school district in the nation and surely add pressure on states elsewhere. “In this country, we do vaccinate for smallpox, measles, and other things,” Adams said on CNN. “And so, we need to engage in a real conversation of how to educate, use the time before the fall to educate our parents to show the importance of it.”

Some individual school districts tried to impose vaccine mandates that would take effect this winter rather than next fall, but nearly all have pushed their deadlines back under pressure. Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the nation, was one of the earliest to issue a Covid-19 vaccine requirement for students, saying in September that students 12 and older must be fully vaccinated by January 10 or switch to online schooling.

Yet while 87 percent of eligible LA students had at least one dose of the vaccine by mid-December, the school board voted to delay its vaccine deadline to the fall, given that 30,000 eligible students were still unvaccinated. Shifting all of those young people to virtual learning at once, district officials reasoned, would have been too difficult to manage — not to mention the racial equity concerns. LAUSD Board President Kelly Gonez said their decision was “not about conceding to a vocal minority of anti-vaxxers.” Still, those who oppose mandatory Covid vaccines hailed the delay as a major victory for their movement.

Up north in Oakland, California, the school board passed a similar vaccine requirement in late September for eligible students — about 15,400 of the district’s total 34,000 students — with a deadline of January 1. But by early December, the school board announced it would delay its requirement to January 31 to give parents more time to comply. Officials began ramping up efforts to get shots in teens’ arms, yet by mid-January, more than 6,000 students remained unvaccinated. School board members have since pushed back the mandate a second time, to August.

In late December, Washington, D.C., councilmembers voted overwhelmingly in favor of legislation requiring all eligible students to get vaccinated against Covid-19, one of the few such mandates on the East Coast. The bill sets a vaccination deadline for March 1, though enforcement is delayed until the start of the next school year, a concession to help keep students in school this spring uninterrupted. At the time, just over 40 percent of D.C. children ages 12-17 had received their two shots.

“For so long with Covid we’ve been playing catch up, trying to catch up to a virus that has wreaked havoc on communities and families,” said Councilmember Christina Henderson, the lead sponsor of the bill. “If we know vaccines can really be part of what keeps people out of the hospital, why wouldn’t we add this to the list of other things we do?”

Henderson acknowledged that passing new rules means there will have to be more counseling and conversations, particularly with vaccine-hesitant communities between now and next school year. “Passing mandates pushes responsibility on us and community leaders,” she said. “That means we have to step up to the plate.”

STUDENT VACCINE MANDATES that do take effect at the start of next school year will come head-to-head with Republicans looking to capitalize on parent frustration before the November midterms. Recent polling shows that by a 2-to-1 margin, parents oppose schools from requiring Covid-19 vaccines for eligible students, and conservatives may aim to campaign on that opposition, particularly targeting those suburban voters who have protested the continuation of pandemic-related restrictions in schools. Social scientists have found many parents — particularly, though not exclusively, white Republican and Independent mothers — now avoid reading news about risks Covid could have for children, satisfied with earlier information they consumed about low risks. Republican Glenn Youngkin recently won the governorship in Virginia campaigning hard on a message of “parents rights,” and GOP strategists nationwide have been crafting plans to replicate his victory in the midterms.

Roughly two weeks after D.C. approved its student vaccine requirement, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz announced his intent to overturn it, following up with a tweet blasting Covid mandates, “Schools have no right to FORCE you to get your 5-year old vaccinated.” A Cruz spokesperson declined The Intercept’s request to clarify the Texas senator’s position on mandated pediatric vaccines.

On the eve of the January 6 anniversary of the U.S. Capitol riot, Donald Trump blasted Biden for “talk” that his administration might enforce a vaccine mandate for school children and urged “MAGA nation” to rise up against any such requirements. (Again, the Biden administration has not discussed any student vaccine requirements.)

A national conservative Catholic law firm with ties to Trump’s legal team and which filed multiple lawsuits challenging the results of the 2020 election is also now helping to lead an anti-vaccine fight that could reverberate for schools across the nation. A 16-year-old San Diego high school student and her family filed a lawsuit in October over the district’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate, which did not allow for exemptions over religious belief. The San Diego school board president said they didn’t provide an exemption for personal belief because families may abuse the option.

The student claimed her opposition to abortion means she can’t take the vaccine, because the vaccines approved for emergency use allegedly used materials from stem cell lines in aborted fetuses. Her case is being litigated by Paul Jonna, an attorney from the Thomas More Society.

In a 2-1 panel ruling in December, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the school district’s mandate, ruling that requiring the vaccine was a legitimate health measure that didn’t interfere with the student’s religious practice. The plaintiffs appealed for a review by all the 9th Circuit judges but failed to get majority approval from the 29 active judges. However, 10 judges and one jurist dissented, an unusually high number which could set the stage for the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case. Jonna has already asked the high court for an emergency injunction, while California state lawmakers are now considering eliminating religious exemptions altogether.

Parent organizations have also taken up the anti-mandate cause, filing lawsuits with mixed success. In Los Angeles, a judge denied two parent groups’ request to block the school district’s vaccine requirement, but out in San Diego, Let Them Choose — a parent group fighting both mask and school vaccine mandates — won a recent court victory, as a San Diego Superior Court judge confirmed in January that San Diego public schools cannot proceed with its student Covid-19 vaccine requirement, even for sports and extracurriculars.

ENCOURAGINGLY, PUBLIC OPINION for the youth vaccines has ticked up over time. After several stagnant months, Kaiser Family Foundation found the share of parents who say their 12-to-17-year-old has gotten at least one Covid shot increased from 49 percent in November to 61 percent in January. A third of parents of 5-to-11-year-olds now also say their child is vaccinated, up from 16 percent in November. Far fewer people in both groups now report they need to “wait and see” before making a decision, and of those who haven’t vaccinated their children, some say they just haven’t been able to find the time. Black and Hispanic parents were about twice as likely as white parents in KFF’s research to say they worried about missing work to get their child a shot or deal with side effects.

More discouragingly, significant partisan splits have emerged, with about half of Republican parents saying in December they would not get their teen or child vaccinated. And even few Democratic politicians have so far been willing to go to bat for requiring the shots, aware that many of the liberal and moderate parents who elected them have been ambivalent themselves. The emotionally charged battles around masks, vaccines, and remote instruction partly reflect the more libertarian drift of public school politics.

Megan Bacigalupi, an Oakland parent who founded OpenSchoolsCA last winter to pressure elected officials to reopen California schools for in-person learning, told The Intercept her organization doesn’t have a clear position on student vaccine requirements and that for now her approach is to encourage parents to talk to their pediatricians. She understands school board members’ rationale for requiring student vaccines but believes comfort level among parents will go up over time and, given the low risk of severe illness among children, worries the consequences outweigh the immediate benefits.

“This is a really complicated issue, and I think you have to meet those vaccine-hesitant people with strategy rather than force,” she said. “While I think a lot of us parents got vaccinated really quickly and got our kids vaccinated quickly, and I fall into that boat, I think a mandate could potentially do more harm than good right now. I don’t think it’s right to kick those kids out of in-person school.”

Omicron cases have been spreading rapidly among young people: The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that of the 11.4 million child Covid-19 cases since the onset of the pandemic, 3.5 million child cases were reported in January alone. Yet some parents say they don’t feel pressure to get their kid vaccinated, since omicron cases tend to be less severe.

“People have different perceptions of risks, some people who look at the data say, ‘only 800 children have died,’ while others look at the same date and say ‘but 800 children have died,’” said Leana Wen, a professor of health policy and management at George Washington University. Hotez, of Texas Children’s Hospital, also warned of “more subtle morbidities” and the fact that long-term risks to neurodevelopment are still not clear. He pointed to a large U.K. study released in September led by University College London and Public Health England, which found as many as 1 in 7 children may have symptoms linked to Covid-19 months after testing positive.

Let Them Choose — the parent group fighting both mask and school vaccine mandates — has been encouraging families to send letters to their school district leaders, saying, “I am not anti-vax, but I am pro-choice when it comes to this very new vaccine for a virus that our children are extremely resilient to.” The letter falsely claims “there is no reason” to vaccinate kids to protect more vulnerable populations and maintains that parents want to see more long-term studies before making any decisions.

The Biden administration, for its part, is just hoping everything all works out.

The Bogus Claim That School Closures Will Doom Democrats

Originally published in The New Republic on January 25, 2022.
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If you’ve read any national news stories over the past few months about the political implications of pandemic-induced school closures, you’ve likely come across Brian Stryker’s name. He’s become the go-to source for reporters and commentators—particularly those at The New York Times. The paper ran a Q&A with him in early December titled, “A Pollster’s Warning to Democrats: ‘We Have a Problem.’” His work has been cited in subsequent op-eds of The New York Times and was featured prominently in a recent Times piece built around the idea that more omicron-induced school closures urged by teachers’ unions could spell disaster for Democrats next fall. On the basis of a survey Stryker’s firm conducted of 500 Virginia voters, the Times stated unequivocally that “polling showed that school disruptions were an important issue for swing voters who broke Republican—particularly suburban white women.”

Stryker, a partner at the Democratic polling firm Anzalone Liszt Grove Research (which announced it’d be changing its name to Impact Research last week), gained this prominence following a widely circulated memo he and his colleague Oren Savir published in mid-November, which analyzed Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial election. The memo reported findings from an online focus group of 18 suburban Biden voters in Northern Virginia and the Richmond metro area, and states that while concerns over “critical race theory” were a problem for voters, school closures were a bigger factor. Perhaps most ominously, their memo quoted a Biden voter who cast her ballot for Youngkin as saying her vote “was against the party that closed the schools for so long last year.”

Democrats have plenty of reasons to fret about the upcoming midterm elections. While Joe Biden won by over seven million votes nationally in 2020, Democrats were devastated down the ballot. The party failed to flip any of the dozen state legislative chambers it had targeted and lost 13 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Election analysts attribute Biden’s victory in large part to suburban women who loathed Donald Trump, but Trump won’t be on the ballot in November, plus midterms have historically been bad for the party of first-term presidents. Voters are concerned about inflation, and Joe Biden’s approval rating hovers, roughly, at a troublingly low 40 percent.

Yet one much weaker midterm theory, curiously, has gained traction among the political elite, especially following the rise of the omicron variant. The slow pace of school reopenings in the 2020–21 school year, we’re told, still represents a significant political liability for Democrats, one that could grow even worse as some school districts close temporarily this month due to Covid-19. Blaming teachers’ unions and Democrats who ally with those unions is also part of this cautionary tale. Alexander Nazaryan, a Yahoo News reporter, went so far as to call Chicago’s teacher strike this month a “Reagan vs. air traffic controllers moment.” If Biden doesn’t “stand up to” teachers’ unions on school closures, Nazaryan warned, “he loses credibility at a critical time in his presidency.”

Perhaps because many of the people who lead these conversations are frustrated parents themselves, the idea that school closures will come to haunt Democrats is something that to many of them feels true or, at the very least, highly plausible. Life remains logistically and emotionally challenging for parents in countless ways, especially those with kids under 5, and so there’s a sense that surely something’s got to give.

Throughout the first six months of the pandemic, many of those same voices also warned that Democrats would pay a steep political cost. That didn’t bear out in the 2020 election. The loudest critics have insisted that Democrats will push for a full return to remote learning—despite the truth that most politicians and union leaders have suggested only temporary accommodations as the country weathers the quickly rising and quickly falling omicron wave of infections.

Instead of a practical debate, online discourse creates an artificial dichotomy, in which one can only belong to one of two camps: an adherence to complete lockdown until we achieve “Covid-zero” or a complete return to pre-pandemic normalcy. But outside Twitter and op-ed pages, many surveys and studies have shown that actual parents and voters hold much more nuanced views. They can hate the harms of distance learning while determining when the pandemic has altered how they want to live and school their children. They can express frustration with their circumstances but maintain that not all problems have immediate resolutions and clear villains.

The latest eruption of the school-closure debate has been defined by a bout of amnesia, one that has erased the bountiful evidence of public sentiment from the 2020–21 school year.

Throughout the pandemic, including during the first few months of 2021, poll after poll showed that most parents and most voters—including the majority of Democrats and independents—were not in favor of sending kids back to K-12 schools full-time, at least until teachers and seniors were vaccinated.

In mid-February last year, 74 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents told Politico/Morning Consult that states should wait to reopen until teachers had received the coronavirus vaccine. A separate Quinnipiac poll from the same time period found just 27 percent of adults thought schools were reopening too slowly, with 47 percent of adults saying they felt reopenings were taking place at the right pace, and 18 percent reporting schools were reopening too quickly. Another February 2021 poll from YouGov/HuffPost found just 27 percent of adults thought schools should be completely reopened, with 29 percent backing partial reopening and 30 percent supporting virtual learning.



The findings were consistent when pollsters talked to just K-12 parents. The University of Southern California asked a nationally representative sample of parents in late January 2021 how their child was learning—in person, remotely, or hybrid—and then asked what they would want for their child if they could choose any option. USC found that 75 percent of parents said their child was receiving the type of instruction they wanted. A separate poll, released by the National Parents Union, found that in mid-January, about two-thirds of public school parents were getting the kind of schooling they preferred for their kids, with about 20 percent wanting more in-person instruction and 10 percent wanting less. EdChoice, a national school choice group, polled U.S. parents monthly, beginning in May 2020, about their comfort level sending their child back to school. Parental comfort levels didn’t break 60 percent until April 2021.

This was all true despite millions of parents and voters expressing deep dissatisfaction with virtual learning, concerned about its toll on academic progress and children’s emotional and social well-being. Seventy-two percent of voters told RMG Research last February that they saw in-person learning as better than virtual instruction, and 57 percent of parents told Yahoo!/YouGov last January they thought their child had fallen behind academically. Sixty-four percent of parents whose children were learning remotely in October 2020 told Pew they were concerned about their child maintaining friendships and social connections, compared to just 49 percent of parents whose kids were attending school in person.

But it doesn’t require any great intellectual leap to bridge these two divides. One could easily favor in-person learning in the abstract, hold real worries about the implications of virtual school, and yet still determine that remote learning is the right call at that time given the risks of the pandemic. Individual families inevitably have different risk thresholds based on resources and other factors. Low-income, Black, and Latino families were more likely last year to prefer remote learning even as studies showed those children suffered greater learning losses in subjects like math and reading from virtual school compared to their white peers.

David Houston, an education policy professor at George Mason University and the survey director for the annual EdNext survey, told me that was indeed consistent with public opinion research. “We asked parents in spring 2020, fall 2020, and spring 2021, ‘Do you think your kid is learning more or less or about the same?’ Folks aren’t fools, they certainly don’t think their kids were doing as well as they would have under normal conditions,” he said. “But simultaneously we asked a question about satisfaction with the instruction and activities provided by their child’s school, and the rates were really pretty darn high.”

When kids returned from summer break in the fall of 2021, life looked quite different in most parts of the country. Things were far from the “normal” of what classrooms of 2019 looked like—delta was circulating, kids were often wearing masks, and individual classes would shut down for a period after a string of positive tests—but the vast majority of children were back learning in school buildings full-time.

Parental attitudes also lifted. Reputable polling has shown broad satisfaction among parents with having their kids back inside schools and no increase in negative views toward teachers’ unions. Surveys have also shown that voters—particularly Democrats and independents—are not holding Democrats responsible for last year’s school closures.

The University of Southern California’s Understanding America Survey surveyed parents four times during the pandemic: October 2020, when 29 percent had fully in-person school; April-May 2021, when 50 percent were in person; June 2021, when 79 percent were on summer break; and October 2021, when 93 percent were in person. The researchers found that parents’ concerns about their child’s learning had gone down significantly last fall. When asked about their school’s efforts to meet their children’s needs—including academically, socially, and mentally—82 percent to 91 percent of parents were satisfied in each area. “This level of positivity was consistent across subgroups,” they reported, “including by race/ethnicity, household income, parental education level, region of the country, urbanicity, partisanship, and grade levels.”

Likewise, in a nationwide poll conducted in early December by Global Strategy Group and GBAO, researchers found just 13 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of independents described Democrats closing schools as a “very concerning” school-related issue to them, compared to 60 percent of Republicans. More Democrats and independents—17 and 39 percent, respectively—said they were very concerned that Democrats were promoting critical race theory in schools.

In a national survey of public school parents registered to vote conducted last month by Hart Research Associates and Lake Research Partners, pollsters found 78 percent of parents expressed satisfaction with their school’s overall handling of the pandemic, and 83 percent reported satisfaction with their school’s efforts to keep students and staff safe. Moreover, just 22 percent of parents said they felt their school waited too long to resume in-person instruction, while three-fourths felt their school struck a good balance between safety and learning (48 percent) or actually moved too quickly to reopen (26 percent).

Although repeated efforts to pit parents against teachers were never successful, the national conversation shifted back to the artificial construct once journalists and talking heads began analyzing how Republicans retook Virginia’s governorship and gave New Jersey’s Democratic Governor Phil Murphy a much more competitive reelection than anyone anticipated. 
The ALG survey and focus group provide useful insights. Focus groups, like the best journalism, can be particularly valuable for drawing out further hypotheses to test. But treating that research as dispositive is a mistake, particularly when other high-quality surveys have found evidence that conflicts with or complicates ALG’s findings.

Geoff Garin, a longtime Democratic pollster and president of Hart Research Associates, did some polling for Terry McAuliffe during the election, followed by an in-depth postelection survey of more than 2,400 Virginia voters after the election on behalf of the Democratic Governors Association. “It’s very clear that education was a dominant factor in driving the outcome of the race, but there’s really no evidence that the question of school closures was an important part of that,” he told me. Garin’s research found that 9 percent of Biden voters switched to Glenn Youngkin in 2021 and that education was indeed a top-cited issue for this pivotal subset.

But rather than school closures, Garin said, these people talked exclusively about Terry McAuliffe’s comments surrounding parent involvement in school. In a late-September gubernatorial debate, McAuliffe declared, “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions,” adding, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Youngkin’s campaign made those deeply unpopular remarks a centerpiece of his campaign in the closing weeks of the race, running ads and circulating petitions and fliers stressing that “Parents Matter.” Under the umbrella of parental involvement, Youngkin’s campaign also leaned on other issues agitating parents like mask and vaccine mandates, transgender rights, and racial equity initiatives.

In the ALG memo, Stryker and Savir argue that, yes, McAuliffe’s gaffe resonated, but it really hit home because it played into existing frustrations parents had over school closures and feeling “that Democrats didn’t listen to parents when they kept the schools closed past any point of reason.”

Garin says his research showed no such thing. “It was completely clear in the surveys from the last few weeks of the election and postelection that voters were reacting to McAuliffe’s comments,” Garin told me. “Youngkin put that quotation front and center with an enormous amount of advertising; he and his campaign never related it to school closures.” Among the Biden-Youngkin voters, Garin’s research found 54 percent said McAuliffe’s position on the role of parents in schools influenced their vote, and 41 percent said his position on the teaching of critical race theory influenced their vote.

These aren’t entirely separate matters. As opposition to CRT becomes heavily associated with Republicans, liberals and moderates who also feel racial and social justice causes have “gone too far” are more likely to glom onto another slogan that allows them to express the same idea without feeling it’s so conservative. Christopher Rufo, the Manhattan Institute activist who got Trump to take notice of CRT in the fall of 2020, has embraced calling their legislative crusade against diversity, equity, and inclusion a “parent’s movement” and describes their efforts as a push for “parental transparency” on curriculum.

Mario Brossard, a senior research vice president at the Democratic polling firm Global Strategy Group, who conducted polling in October on CRT, told me, “It is clear that the discussion or the talking points around having parents have more input into the curriculum” is being used as a euphemism for CRT. “The folks who are anti-CRT are fairly well entrenched, and they hold those sentiments quite strongly,” he said.  “What Christopher Rufo is trying to do is make it more palatable to a broader cross section of voters, parents, and Americans generally by talking about parental input into the curriculum.”

In the ALG focus group memo being widely cited as evidence that CRT is just not as big an issue, the researchers did say that participants, even as they conceded critical race theory wasn’t formally taught in schools, talked about feeling “like racial and social justice issues were overtaking math, history, and other things” and “worried that racial and cultural issues are taking over the state’s curricula.”

Fox News Voter Analysis survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, which polled over 2,500 Virginia voters after the election, found a stunning 72 percent of respondents said the debate over teaching CRT in schools was “an important” factor to them, with a quarter calling it “the single most important” factor.

This doesn’t fully discount the school-closure explanation. The Fox survey also found 27 percent of voters ranked “the debate over handling Covid-19 in schools” as their single-most important issue. But of that cohort, two-thirds cast their ballot for Terry McAuliffe. Given that the aforementioned Covid-19 debate could encompass masks, vaccine requirements, and virtual schooling, it’s hard to parse out exactly what’s going on. But the fact that voters who said it was the most salient for them broke heavily for McAuliffe goes against the conventional narrative.

Michael Hartney, a political scientist at Boston College, did a postelection analysis for Chalkbeat, where he found Youngkin made slightly larger gains in regions where schools took longer to fully reopen, controlling for the share of Trump voters and white voters in a given area.

He also found that Youngkin did no better in places that had a school district staff member dedicated to diversity, or that mentioned equity in its mission, proxies he designed for CRT. 

“The analysis was by no means perfect, but I do think it showed that there is little systematic evidence that Youngkin ran up vote share (relative to Trump) in districts which have more heavily emphasized diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives,” Hartney told me via email, stressing he was doing “merely an exploratory analysis.” Hartney added that he’s waiting on getting some postelection micro-survey data to analyze and tease out some of these patterns more carefully.

Brian Stryker, the ALG pollster, told me he doesn’t know why school closures didn’t come up in Geoff Garin’s postelection survey but maintained they were a big deal in his research. He stressed the importance of candidates and elected officials showing more empathy for the hardship families have faced and continue to face around schools.

“Going to remote learning is deeply unpopular, it just feels like that’s in the ether, it’s the thing that you hear from parents all the time,” he said. (Stryker lives in Chicago, where schools closed earlier this month.) “That’s not a very scientific thing to say,” he added, “but the focus groups and surveys are backed up by every parent that I talk to in my life, and they’re all furious about the closing and all worried their school is going to be next.”

On Twitter earlier this month, Stryker shared a Suffolk/USA Today poll showing 66 percent of the country and 52 percent of Democrats oppose shifting schools to remote learning to contain the spread of omicron. “Hard data to back up what we’re all feeling—closing schools, on top of being an educational disaster, is a political disaster for Democrats too,” Stryker tweeted.

But when I brought up that polls showed most voters, including parents, were not in favor of fully reopening schools before vaccines came out, he agreed that “minds changed around the vaccine, once teachers were getting vaccinated, once grandparents were getting vaccinated.”

Has he found any evidence that leads him to conclude voters will hold Democrats responsible in November for schools that close during the omicron wave?

“I think 10 months is a long time, and I think parents are pretty understanding of the fact that people are very sick right now; nobody wants teachers to go to school with the coronavirus,” he said. “Should there be another wave that looks like omicron, we may have to reassess, but in 10 months, if this isn’t still happening, I don’t think it will be a huge voting issue.” 

New School Year, Same Old Covid Chaos

Originally published in The New Republic on August 17, 2021.

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The dust had seemed to settle on questions of school reopenings—one of the most polarizing political debates of the pandemic. In the spring of 2021, as vaccine shots were administered into arms, and with Congress having authorized billions of new funds for K-12 budgets, it seemed that, for the first time, parents, teachers, and staff could breathe a bit easier. Hope was here, and safe in-person learning was in reach.

Yes, millions of students had opted to stay remote in the spring even when their schools reopened (many parents reported that their child was doing well with virtual school, that it was safer than in-person, or a combination of the two), but leaders were optimistic about autumn, where real normalcy was on the horizon. Some politicians, like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, even came out early to proclaim there would be no virtual option in the fall—a decision some cheered for its confident signal that the end was near. 

Yet recent weeks have reintroduced uncertainty, with the delta coronavirus variant; conflicting guidelines on the local, state, and federal levels; and warring politics that seem to escalate by the day. For the millions of students who have already returned to school, and for those still waiting for the school year to start, signs unfortunately now point to continued chaos with quarantines, closures, and fast-changing rules. In other words, we’re looking at a new school year that could look a lot like last year. To make sense of all, here’s an accounting of where things stand, what we know, and what we have yet to learn.


By mid-May, the CDC announced new masking guidelines, emphasizing that fully vaccinated people no longer needed face coverings outdoors and in most indoor settings. The guidelines took many by surprise, and it wasn’t clear how institutions would determine who was vaccinated or not. But such details were largely waved aside. “We have all longed for this moment,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, said at a press conference. 

By early July, the CDC went further, releasing new guidance for schools that said while young children should wear masks, vaccinated teachers and students can learn safely in school buildings without them. The agency recommended three feet of distance where possible, but said if that was infeasible it need not stop a return to in-person learning.

At the time of the new schools guidance, Covid-19 cases were fairly low, and the majority of educators had been at least partially vaccinated. President Biden missed his goal of 70 percent of American adults having a shot in their arms by Independence Day, but his administration said not to worry, that there still had been amazing progress. Yet it was hard to ignore that vaccination rates had slowed nationally, and a new, more transmissible variant loomed.

Nearly three weeks later, the mood around the pandemic was far less sanguine, as cases, hospitalizations, and deaths were spiking. Some companies began to push back their return-to-office start days out of an abundance of caution, but there was no similar move to delay school reopenings. Even as some business executives decided it was not yet safe for workers to return, political leaders continued to emphasize that returning to classrooms in August or September would be fine. They pointed to studies from earlier in the pandemic, while acknowledging that the delta variant may complicate those findings. Few were ready to consider any alternative.

On July 27, citing new research on delta, the CDC issued new school guidance, recommending that all students and staff—even if fully vaccinated—wear masks. Only 30 percent of young people ages 12–17 were then fully vaccinated, said Walensky, and the CDC’s data suggested even vaccinated individuals were spreading the virus. 

Still, the CDC’s new warnings came at a time when millions of Americans had lost confidence in the agency’s leadership, and many conservatives saw railing at the CDC as good politics to boot.

On July 29, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order barring local governments and school districts from requiring masks. Not to be outdone, the next day Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued his own executive order forbidding schools from requiring students to wear masks, going so far as to say it was a matter of “parent rights.” His order, which hinges on one study from Brown University, dismissed the larger body of research showing masks significantly reduce the risk of Covid spread. DeSantis also said Florida would deny funding to districts that defied him. 

Some school districts are indeed defying state bans on masks, and the Biden administration has said it will look to support superintendents who risk retribution. Still, according to data collected by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, currently about half of the nation’s 100 largest school districts are requiring students to wear masks this fall. As of Thursday, just seven were requiring regular testing of both students and staff.  

Vaccinations are adding yet another layer of complication to school reopenings. After months of encouraging voluntary inoculation, the federal government, private employers, and school districts are now moving slowly toward requiring all employees to be vaccinated. Last week, California became the first state to announce that all teachers, school staff, and even parent volunteers would need vaccination. Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest district, announced Friday that all staff must be vaccinated—a move also endorsed by its local teachers union.

In late July it seemed unclear whether unions would stand in the way of more aggressive vaccination rules, given their reluctance to overriding collective bargaining agreements. When Biden announced on July 29 his new rule that federal workers be vaccinated or regularly tested, some unions, including the left-leaning American Postal Workers Union, expressed opposition to the top-down dictates.

But public opinion remains strong behind teacher vaccinations, and union leaders quickly came around. (Among parents with school-age children, 60 percent say they think all teachers should be vaccinated before returning to the classroom.) On August 8, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, came out in favor of Covid-19 vaccine requirements. “As a matter of personal conscience, I think that we need to be working with our employers, not opposing them, on vaccine mandates,” she said on Meet the Press. Four days later, Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, came out in favor of vaccine mandates. Individual local unions have also started to pass resolutions in support.

But student uptake remains spotty among those eligible for the vaccine. As of August 11, in six states, over 60 percent of children ages 12–17 had received at least one dose, while in seven states, 30 percent or fewer had gotten their first shot. Yet many school districts have decided not to require students to inoculate themselves against Covid-19, despite long requiring student immunizations for other diseases. 

In Washington D.C., for example, just 14 percent of Black youth ages 12–15 had received one dose of the vaccine as of August 4, as compared with 51 percent of white students in the same age group. Among 16- and 17-year-olds in the district, just 21 percent of Black students had been vaccinated, while 47 percent of white students had. City leaders say they worry a new mandate for students could inspire backlash, and instead want to incentivize voluntary shots. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced the district would distribute up to 1,200 free AirPods to teens who got vaccinated, as well as award college scholarships to vaccinated students in a raffle. 

After months of stressing that children are not at risk of severe Covid-19 or death, and that the vaccines are good at preventing severe Covid-19 and death, leaders should not be too surprised that some families are hesitant to conclude that vaccinating their kids is worth it. Still, with low youth vaccination rates and the delta strain being more than twice as contagious as previous variants, pediatric cases and hospitalizations have been increasing, and more experts are warning about the risks to children of so-called long Covid.

New research about the potentially waning efficacy of the vaccines is throwing yet another wrench into school reopenings. Experts are seeing much more spread among vaccinated individuals, and one preprint study published last week by the Mayo Clinic suggested the mRNA vaccines may be significantly less effective in protecting against delta infection—as low as 42 percent effectiveness for those inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine.

On Friday, the FDA approved booster shots for certain immunocompromised individuals, a positive step, but many children live with adults who are immunocompromised and not yet eligible for third doses. While parents worry about the health and safety of their children, they’re also weighing the health and safety of their own parents, themselves, their siblings, their co-workers, and their neighbors. Some families will want to wait until their young children are eligible for the vaccines, or until more vulnerable groups are eligible for boosters. 

It’s not hard to see why. In Mississippi, nearly 1,000 children and 300 school staff tested positive for Covid between August 2 and 6, with roughly 5,000 quarantining from exposure. One Arkansas district had an outbreak of 43 cases, leading more than 800 students and staff to quarantine. In Florida, the Palm Beach County district superintendent reported that two days into the new school year, more than 400 students were in quarantine and the district had 134 confirmed cases, with 108 students and 26 staff members infected.

Given the uncertainty around the delta threat, a growing number of families have called for assurance that their children can learn virtually this fall. Even with experts warning that children risk falling behind academically if they continue to learn remotely, some families believe the harms do not outweigh the benefits in a pandemic, especially when many districts plan to be even more lax about testing and contact tracing than they were in 2020.

According to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, 80 percent of the nation’s 100 largest school districts will now be offering a virtual option; that share doubled in the first two weeks of August alone. However, New York City, the nation’s largest public school district, has not yet agreed to make remote learning available.

Getting kids back into the classroom and easing the burden on working families (especially mothers, who still shoulder most of the child-rearing duties) remain top policy goals, and leaders hope that the new vaccine mandates, the pressure to ramp up mitigation measures, and forthcoming FDA full approval for Covid-19 shots will help limit the spread of the highly contagious strain and ease lingering concerns.

But for those hoping we were finally at the end of the tunnel and could now enjoy calm and relaxed in-person school, the coronavirus has wrought yet another rude awakening.

The Pandemic Spurred Governors to Grant Clemency, But Advocates Say It Isn’t Enough

Originally published in The Appeal on May 24, 2021.
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As the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, advocates pushing for the release of incarcerated people to contain the disease’s spread in prisons led to U.S. governors—especially Democrats—facing new pressures to use their executive clemency power to commute sentences.

Although specific clemency powers vary from state to state, governors hold immense sway over the fate of the 1.3 million incarcerated individuals held in state prisons. Hundreds of thousands of these people have been incarcerated over the last several decades as a result of America’s tough-on-crime sentencing policies and many of them are ineligible for parole. Even among states that have eased sentencing rules in the last few years, many have not made their reforms retroactive.

Advocates in Oregon have been pushing their Democratic governor, Kate Brown, to use her clemency powers to commute sentences. Measure 11, a mandatory-minimum sentencing statute that lawmakers passed in 1994, has fueled the state’s incarceration crisis. Nearly half of the state’s 12,000 prisoners were sentenced under the statute—and those who remain in prison are left with little hope for release outside of the governor’s discretion. Even subsequent reforms to Measure 11, like a bill that Brown signed in 2019, have not been retroactive

During the first six months of the pandemic, Brown commuted the sentences of at least 123 people, including 10 who were medically vulnerable to COVID-19. But she denied many other requests.

Some advocates feel Brown has been too cautious in releasing prisoners en masse during the pandemic. “She was very, very completely rigid about it, I think she decided it wasn’t politically feasible,” said Tara Herivel, an attorney in Portland who has been assisting with hundreds of habeas corpus cases during the pandemic. “It takes a bold governor to release people … and she didn’t find it important to be.”

A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to requests for comment. But as The Appeal previously reported, Brown granted 20 pardons, approved six conditional commutations and denied 240 commutation applications between July 1, 2015, and Feb. 14, 2020. Three other applications were closed during that period because the applicants died. 

Aliza Kaplan, who directs the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, told The Appeal she believes Brown should be credited for using her clemency powers over the years and that the pandemic helped create some new urgency within Brown’s office. One challenge, Kaplan notes, is that clemency is now viewed less as a tool for forgiveness and rehabilitation. “Governors have become afraid of using their power because of politics, but that’s never what the clemency power was intended for,” she said.

In Illinois, governors have virtually unfettered power to commute sentences, and they can issue mass clemency orders. In 2003, as he was leaving office, Republican Governor George Ryan used his clemency powers to commute the sentences of all 167 people on Illinois’s death row. In 2019, the current governor, J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, pardoned over 11,000 people with low-level marijuana convictions one day before a state law legalizing marijuana, including retroactively, was set to take effect.

Although Pritzker issued thousands of pardons during that year, his first in office, he commuted just three sentences, according to A Bridge Forward, a Chicago-based law firm that represents those seeking to clear their criminal records. (A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to requests for comment on clemency statistics.) But Pritzker ramped it up in 2020, granting at least 38 commutation requests, and dismissed objections from Senate Republicans. 

“I think COVID was not the overriding reason, but it did get the governor to take a serious look at people who were petitioning for commutation and he has been willing to make decisions that don’t necessarily make everyone happy,” said Ina Silvergleid, the founder of A Bridge Forward.

In Louisiana, advocates are also hoping Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards uses his clemency powers to try to correct for decades of overly harsh sentencing in a state with one of the nation’s highest rates of incarceration and people serving life without parole.

Edwards, who ran for office on a platform of criminal justice reform, also issued commutations during the pandemic. He commuted the sentences of 36 people in 2020, more than the 34 he extended in his entire first term. (Edwards’s Republican predecessor, Bobby Jindal, granted just three commutations over his eight years in office, and ignored roughly 700 clemency recommendations from the state’s Pardons and Parole board.)

“Clemency is something the governor takes very seriously,” said Edwards spokesperson Shauna Sanford, adding that he granted 279 commutations and pardons between Oct. 10, 2016, and March 9, 2021.

“He’s signed more than his predecessor but at a rate that we’d like to see increase,” said Kerry Myers, the deputy director of Louisiana Parole Project, which provides legal representation and residential re-entry services to parole eligible persons sentenced to life. There is precedent in Louisiana for issuing commutations at a faster clip: Throughout his first two terms in office between 1972 and 1980, Democratic Governor Edwin Edwards signed 945 commutations, and another 335 during his non-consecutive third term.

Just 5 percent of the roughly 4,600 people sentenced to life in Louisiana are eligible for parole, according to the Sentencing Project—meaning commutations or pardons are the only hope of release for the remaining 95 percent of incarcerated people.

But Myers agrees with Kaplan, from the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic, that politics is one hurdle slowing commutations. “We have a Democratic governor and a Republican attorney general with gubernatorial aspirations,” he said. “If Edwards starts signing large quantities of commutations at once, we know his opponents will make it a political issue, even if public safety is not a factor.”

In California too, advocates suspect fear of political backlash has slowed the number of commutations granted by Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom. Danella Debel, a spokesperson for Newsom, told The Appeal that the governor has commuted one sentence so far this year, 55 in 2020, and 23 in 2019. “The Governor regards clemency as an important part of the criminal justice system that can incentivize accountability and rehabilitation, increase public safety by removing counterproductive barriers to successful reentry, correct unjust results in the legal system and address the health needs of incarcerated people with high medical risks,” she said in an email.

But only about 10 percent of those released from California prisons between July and November 2020 were age 55 and older, a group of people who are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 and have the lowest rate of recidivism after release. And with nearly 100,000 people still incarcerated, the number of people granted clemency in California has had little effect on the nation’s second-largest state prison population.

Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union launched a national campaign to encourage governors and the president to exercise their clemency powers more aggressively and release 50,000 individuals held in federal and state prisons. The Redemption Campaign is focused on governors issuing categorical clemency, like releasing older incarcerated individuals or those who would be serving a lesser sentence if convicted today.

Advocates are also working to help governors feel less politically nervous about embracing clemency. Polling commissioned by the ACLU and released last August found that 86 percent of Democrats, 81 percent of independents, and 73 percent of Republicans support reducing prison populations and offering incarcerated people a path toward redemption with clemency.

In Washington State, Democratic Governor Jay Inslee granted eight commutations in 2019, 437 in 2020, and 25 so far in 2021, according to Mike Faulk, Inslee’s spokesperson. The vast majority of the 2020 commutations were granted in April, in a blanket order extending to individuals who were not incarcerated on violent, serious, or sex offenses and who were within 75 days of their earned release date.

Faulk told The Appeal that Inslee, unlike advocates and organizations like the ACLU, does not see clemency as a tool necessary to reduce mass incarceration, and that such an effort must be tackled on the legislative level and with buy-in from other public institutions, such as law enforcement and prosecutors. 

“Clemency existed before the era of mass incarceration; and, further, mass incarceration can most definitely be resolved without the use of the governor’s clemency authority,” Faulk said in an email.  

Still many advocates nationwide are sounding a different drum, emphasizing that clemency is integral to any strategy to correct for past harms of harsh sentencing. 

“If people want to end mass incarceration,” said Kaplan, “I can’t think of a better tool than governors granting commutations.”

Exit Interview: How the COVID Tracking Project Stepped Up When The Trump Administration Didn’t

Originally published in GQ on February 19, 2021.
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It perhaps doesn’t say great things about the U.S. government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic that a plucky volunteer organization has grown into one of the most trusted data sources on COVID-19 in the U.S. But that’s the reality: The COVID Tracking Project, an improvised effort supported the Atlantic, was founded in the earliest days of the pandemic, after four journalists and data scientists realized there wan’t a good centralized source for essential stats like the number of tests administered and patients currently in the hospital with the virus. 

So every day for the last eleven months the project coordinated an effort of mostly volunteers to manually gather the latest public health data from all 50 states, Washington D.C., and five territories. They then worked to translate that information for the public—producing daily charts and analysis on the scale of the pandemic, which have been cited everywhere from local broadcasters to executive branch briefings. These daily updates on the number of tests, cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been invaluable journalists and public health officials, and for millions of people, become one of the few steady fixtures of this last year.

Earlier this month the group announced it would be ending its daily data compilation work on March 7, the one-year anniversary of it’s founding. Ahead of their last day, GQ spoke with two of the group’s co-founders, Alexis Madrigal and Erin Kissane, about the terrifying early days of the pandemic, why the government wasn’t doing this work, and their decision to shut down.

GQ: Can you both tell me about how this started?

Alexis Madrigal: I was talking with Robinson Meyer, another staff writer at The Atlantic, a lot in February about how we were worried about COVID. Rob realized that the number of people being tested in the U.S. was not actually known. He called me up one day and he was like, “Imagine we’re reporters on the Army Corps of Engineers beat, five days before Hurricane Katrina. Like what the fuck are we doing here? We should do something.”

We decided to try and count and compile the number of people who had been tested by calling all the states. We came up with a count of less than 2,000—when the Trump administration had been talking about having deployed millions of tests. Which meant the number of cases being reported was also an enormous undercount.

We published our first article [From March 6, Exclusive: The Strongest Evidence Yet That America Is Botching Coronavirus Testing] and after that I got an email from Jeff Hammerbacher, a college friend of mine who went on to build data systems at Facebook and then became a bioinformatics guy. He asked me if I had used his spreadsheet to write our article. I was like, “What spreadsheet?”  He linked us to it, and that Google spreadsheet became the basis of what we do at COVID Tracking Project.

Erin had a lot of experience in managing distributed news projects, she came on as a fourth founder, we made this cattle call for volunteers, and that was it. Now it’s 340 days later and we’re still doing it.

Erin Kissane: Rob and I had been doing late night anxiety texts in February about how we just didn’t have eyes on the virus in the United States. As soon as I saw that Rob and Alexis had done this work, I got in touch.

You both grasped that this would be a bigger deal earlier than most Americans, and earlier than most journalists.

EK: There were so many concerns about not alarming people and not overreacting. But it happens that I’m just a person interested in pandemics and I also have an autoimmune condition, so I’m particularly concerned about respiratory viruses. I also read a lot of news out of China. It just seemed so bad and U.S. coverage in January and into February was so much about how it’s probably not going to come here, but it felt like there was very little attention on how bad it actually was in Wuhan.

And so your project quickly became the best place for testing data. Correct me if I’m wrong, but as I understand it, at some point the CDC did start collecting a lot of similar data, but failed to package it in a way that the public could easily digest. At what point did that start happening?

AM: The short answer is I think it was roughly 100 days before the CDC released a testing dataset. It wasn’t until much, much later, in the fall, that the CDC put out a dataset on current hospitalizations.

But there’s two things, there’s data availability—is anything there? And then there’s data quality—are there reasons to suspect the data is not complete? And what we found with the CDC’s testing data is that there were major problems. Each federal data pipeline matches up differently with the stitched-together data from the 56 jurisdictions, and our job is to figure that out. That’s a lot of what our work became.

EK: May 9 is when the CDC began posting testing data, cases, and deaths all together in their COVID tracker. We did a pretty in-depth research report on that, and found the testing data was really quite dramatically off for a lot of states. In some cases, it was much higher than what states reported, in some cases much lower. So back in May we felt we couldn’t stop our project. When the federal hospitalization data came out, we did a lot of work to try to explain to our data users that their data was actually quite good.

We didn’t try to build a dashboard that was easy to use. We sort of backed ourselves into providing that. At first it was just journalists and data nerds, but eventually we brought on people with more science communication expertise. I think something we’re feeling very heartened and encouraged by is that some combination of the CDC and HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services] now seem quite committed to doing science communication about the details of this pandemic—with regular briefings and all those things.

How would you say your tracker differs from other COVID trackers, like the one hosted by Johns Hopkins or the New York Times?

EK: The metrics we track are different, and we also work at the state level, and some of the other trackers work at the county level. The other trackers that I’m aware of are primarily scrapers, and our work is entirely manual. We have humans who go in and collect the numbers, more humans who check the numbers and double check them. The benefit of continuing to work this way, instead of moving to automation, has been that we are very, very close to tiny definitional changes in the data. We can dig through PDFs, and we can spot tiny blips in ways that a scraper might miss. It’s a very labor-intensive way of doing work, but it’s really about keeping the institutional knowledge about what exactly each number means.

AM: Unlike most of the others, we weren’t trying to build a standalone-destination tracker. Our role was quite different. We were building a node that fed information to a lot of those other trackers, as well as people who were extremely interested in some of the in-depth texture of Covid statistics. We gave top-lines, but that was not the primary goal of the project.

How many people would you say were involved with the project? And how did it break down between paid staff and volunteers?

AM: I think about 900 people have flowed through in some way, and about 400 have done a shift and entered data. So 400 Americans have really contributed to this dataset for their fellow folks. On an average week, I think it’s about 250-300 active people, and on a given data shift, there’s only so many slots, so it’s probably like 30 people on a given shift.

EK: On a given day we have the new folks, the checkers, the more experienced folks, the double checkers, and then the shift leads.

AM: Then there’s reporter folks who go out to the states, data infrastructure people, data quality people, and then there’s been about 30 paid staffers for the last few months.

So your project is winding down. While I know you didn’t launch this with the intention to run it forever, you all have created a trusted institution at a time when some of our other institutions have come to be seen as less trustworthy. So why are you ending next month, as opposed to the summer or once we get through the pandemic?

EK: We wanted to wind down as soon as we thought the federal government was doing a good enough job that we could hand it off. That sounds arrogant to say, but let’s be clear, there were deficits. Our orientation has been from the beginning that we would only go as long as we had to. And the reason for that is that we really want people to be looking at, working with, banging on, and using the federal data.

We don’t want to be a barrier between full attention on the federal data. That was really an ethical concern for us: We think it’s properly the role of the federal government. Our data can only get so good, because we’re at the wrong end of the pipeline: We can only look at what’s on public dashboards, and there’s a lot of work on those metrics that happens before they get to the dashboards. The federal government can see things we can’t see, they can do things we can’t do.

AM: We’ve had tons of interactions with states and the federal government to know that people have been making really, really good faith efforts to collect data. It’s easy to say now that the government does not appear to be cooking the books—and has not appeared to be cooking the books—but that was not at all clear through most of 2020.

EK: This has all been very ad hoc, and the people doing this work, whether they’re getting paid or not, they’re doing it because they need to be doing the work for themselves, for their country. They see it as their responsibility but it’s not a sustainable situation. We haven’t ever paid our people what they’re worth. This work should not be done by volunteers.

A real turning point for us was when we decided not to collect vaccine data. That was a strategic and tactical decision, because we wanted to put attention and pressure on the feds to track it.

I understand you’ve given some recommendations to the Biden transition team. Can you say more about that, and why you feel better about passing the torch?

AM: The number one thing is that the people we have been pressuring at HHS to deliver have really been delivering. When we first made contact with people there, they said, “We’d really like to make things more open and transparent.” And we said, “Great, let’s see that.” And week after week we continue to get more and more releases, and information.

EK: One of the things that has happened over the course of this project is that we’ve developed relationships with most of the states, with people in their public health departments, who have really helped us understand what they could and couldn’t do. And something that we’re trying to do now, as we make these recommendations to the federal government, is to include those perspectives and things that we learned about what is actually possible for states, where there are resource problems, tech system problems. We hope these can be seeds for the federal government to do the deep, difficult long-term work of rebuilding the country’s public health infrastructure, which is what it’ll take to do a really good job on the data. That’s a very long project that needs to be done, and it hopefully can be nudged along by the pressure around COVID.

What needs to happen to be better able to track things in the future?

AM: The short answer is that it’s nuts to run a country, from a public health perspective, in the way that we do. Each governor and state control an enormous amount of information. The federal government can request things, even mandate it, but they’re not providing the systems that go along with those mandates. It’s not so much tech capacity, narrowly construed. It’s more like state capacity, and within that there are counties with their own capacity issues.

If we really want to go about fixing this in a deep, systemic way, you build up that capacity from the county level on up. But that does require federal coordination.

EK: Right, the federal government can compel uniform reporting. There are states that can refuse but the feds do have a lot more authority than an outside organization like us to get clean, standardized data. And we’ve seen, like with the federal hospitalization data, that they can do this. We just think they need to better provide resources to support state collection of that data, to help build capacity. I’m sure you’ve seen the reporting about how many people have quit their local public health departments this year all over the country because they’re so burnt out.

When you look back on the project, what were some interesting or particularly meaningful ways you saw the work impact the world?

AM: All of it, but the bottom up way the project hit people is what made us feel particularly good. Like when we’d hear from individual people that their family members had changed their decisions because they were able to see through our data that this was real and they should take it seriously. Also things we heard from the actual people doing heroic work on the frontlines in healthcare.

The things that were oftentimes dispiriting was seeing how much use the data was getting in governments at all levels. While that should maybe occasionally feel gratifying, it actually felt destabilizing because it made us realize the state of play in the world.

EK: We wanted to help media organizations do accountability reporting, and we did see huge pickups from media organizations, including tons and tons of broadcast stations. That was really meaningful for us, and it was also important to show media organizations that they could trust the data coming from states. We’ve seen very little malfeasance from states. We’ve seen mistakes. We’ve seen big backlogs that made things look weird. But really for the most part we’ve done the work of saying, “Look, you can trust this information.”

But I think also seeing our data cited by two different administrations has been unsettling. The hardest thing on this entire project for me has been when we learned the federal government didn’t have something that we thought they were just sitting on.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

Some Teachers Are Being Required To Come To School — To Teach Virtually

Originally published in The Intercept on August 28, 2020.
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KATHY ROKAKIS, a 62-year-old high school French teacher in Michigan, is dreading her return to school next week.

Students in her Wayne County school district — Plymouth-Canton Community Schools — were originally going to be given the option to return to in-person classes or do remote learning, but earlier this month her school board voted to start the school year 100 percent virtual. “A lot of teachers were really relieved for so many reasons,” said Rokakis.

But two days after the school board decided the district would go fully remote, Superintendent Monica Merritt announced that teachers would still be coming into school to teach children virtually. “There wasn’t anything that had been discussed, we were just told that’s how it would happen,” recalled Rokakis. “We were basically blindsided.”

In a letter sent last Friday to educators, Merritt defended her decision by saying, “We anticipate how hard it will be for many students to continue learning in a remote space when they miss their school community so much. It is with this lens, focused on what is best for our students, that has resulted in our expectation that our staff will teach remotely from their classrooms.” Merritt did not return requests for comment.

Teachers have continued to press administration for reasons the benefits of this arrangement outweigh the public health risks of coming into school during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The reasons have been ridiculous. One is so that students will be able to see their classrooms, so that when they come back face-to-face they’ll feel more comfortable,” said Rokakis. “Another is they say so we’ll have anything that we need accessible to us, and they keep using the scenario of if we have to do a science experiment. But I don’t teach science, and the things I need are very accessible to me here at home. And now I’m expected to teach French in a mask?”

In light of all this, some teachers in Plymouth-Canton have applied for family and medical leave to avoid going back, and others are retiring early, according to Rokakis. “If I could, I would, but I can’t because I carry the health insurance for my family,” she said. “I’m feeling very uncomfortable. To me, there needs to be more grace. This is not a normal time and people are trying their hardest.”

Across the country, as schools in some states have already reopened and others are planning to do so in the coming weeks, school districts and board members are grappling with and continually revising their back-to-school procedures. While many schools have opted to begin the year fully virtual given the risks presented by Covid-19, educators in some of those districts are still being required to teach from their classrooms. Even with requirements to wear masks, many teachers feel coming into school buildings is an unnecessary risk during the pandemic, for reasons including poor ventilation, slow coronavirus testing, and unreliable levels of personal protective equipment.

LATE LAST WEEK, Jeffrey Riley, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, released guidance saying it’s the state’s “expectation” that all teachers and critical support staff will report to schools to teach each day if their district is doing remote learning. Reasons Riley listed included “provid[ing] more consistency” for students, more reliable internet access and faster IT support, making it easier to collaborate with colleagues, and making it easier for administrators “to monitor the level and amount of instruction students receive.”

The president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Merrie Najimy, released a blistering statement in response to the state’s recommendation, accusing Riley of having a “fundamental lack of trust” in teachers to do their jobs without being supervised.

“It is paternalistic and punitive and has no bearing on the quality of education that the real experts — the educators — provide so masterfully,” Najimy wrote, urging for districts to reject the state’s guidance. “Educators across the Commonwealth are focused on fully redesigning remote instruction to make it more effective, while pushing school districts and the state to make the changes needed to gradually return to in-person instruction. Commissioner Riley should be advocating for the resources that educators and districts need to achieve these goals rather than putting the thumbscrews to teachers to get them to return to school buildings before it is safe to do so.”

Scott McLennan, a spokesperson for the union, told The Intercept that districts and unions are still negotiating reopening plans, so they’re still “waiting to see how it plays out.” At least a few large school districts in the state, like Springfield and Worcester, have said they will not require teachers to come to school for remote instruction.

Joanna Plotz, an elementary ESL teacher in Chelsea, a city with among the highest rates of Covid-19 infections in the state, is hoping her union succeeds in blocking the recommendation. “In an ideal world I’d obviously love to be in a classroom, but it just doesn’t feel worth it,” said Plotz.

If teachers at Plotz’s school are required to return to school, Plotz would be sharing a classroom with another educator, who has a 3-year-old daughter. Many teachers would like the option to go in. “I might want to go in sometimes. I live in a 500-square-foot-apartment, and Sundays it might be good to go in and prepare things, but I’d only want to do it if the other teacher and her daughter wouldn’t be there,” said Plotz. “And I do have some coworkers who are going crazy at home. But the way [the state] is doing it just says, ‘We don’t trust teachers.’”

Reached for comment, Colleen Quinn, a spokesperson for Commissioner Riley, defended the guidance. “In remote scenarios, instruction from the classroom is the most effective educational environment,” she said.

IN OTHER PARTS of the country, some teachers are already back at school providing remote instruction to students at home.

Erin Taylor, a middle school teacher in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said she still has not received a real explanation from her district as to why educators have to be teaching remotely from their school buildings.

“As teachers we always have to have an answer when our students ask us, ‘Why do we have to learn this?’ and I have not heard any answer from the district,” said Taylor. “It feels like a lack of trust, a surveillance thing, and I would totally be open and love to hear how they arrived at this decision, even if I disagreed with it. But we haven’t even gotten that.”

Devra Ashby, a spokesperson for the school district told The Intercept that it is their goal “to provide a standard professional instructional delivery setting and enhanced teacher classroom performance” and that teachers “have the most resources at their fingertips when they are in their classrooms.” Ashby added that one-third of their students will be coming into the building for hybrid learning and that their standards for education have not changed. “We must deliver industry-standard instructions in a professional academic setting, which promotes student academic potential and achievement,” she said.

Taylor said there has been mixed messaging around masks. Colorado has a statewide mandate that says individuals must wear masks when inside public places, and she says her school district has also advised educators to wear masks at all times, but that policy is not being enforced at every school.

“I’ve been back at school for over two weeks now and I just see a lot of people not wearing masks even though that’s supposed to be the official policy,” she said. “I’ve walked past people where there are meetings going on and a bunch of people sitting around the table not wearing masks.”

Taylor, who spoke to The Intercept on the second day of the school year, said she’s trying to be empathetic but is worried about how unsafe she already feels.

“We always talk as teachers about how the beginning of the year is the time to reinforce routine and rules and make sure you’re being clear, because with kids, if you don’t enforce a rule at the beginning, it becomes really hard to get that [compliance] later on,” she said. “It just feels like, well, if we’re not all wearing masks on Day 2, then I don’t have much hope for the year.”

Shawntel Shirkey, a paraeducator in Wichita, Kansas, also has to come into her high school for remote instruction. Earlier this month, the Wichita school board approved in-person learning for elementary schools and remote learning for middle and high school students.

Shirkey thinks given the conservative political climate in Kansas, her school board “made the best decision I could hope for.” At least one teacher at her school has tested positive for Covid-19 so far, but she praised her school for at least giving all staff members cloth masks, ample amounts of sanitizer and disinfectant, and the option to get face shields. “The district itself is not being very forthcoming but I’m lucky that my principal is being transparent about if someone has tested positive,” Shirkey said. Like in Taylor’s school, masks mandates don’t always mean staff actually wears them.

Shirkey thinks it’s been “pretty split” among teachers about who wants to be providing remote instruction from school. “Some educators definitely see the irony of requiring teachers to come into buildings that the district has deemed unsafe for students,” she said. “But others just think the pandemic is ridiculous and as soon as the election is over, coronavirus is going to go away.”

Senators Push for Free Prison Phone Calls in Next Coronavirus Relief Bill

Originally published in The Intercept on August 7, 2020.

THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC has put into sharp relief an issue criminal justice reformers have been raising for years: the astronomical rates that prison-phone corporations charge for phone and video calls to incarcerated individuals. Now, as Congress debates the next coronavirus stimulus deal, some lawmakers are pushing for provisions to make such calls free.

On Thursday, 17 Democratic senators, led by Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tammy Duckworth, sent a letter to Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer urging them to make this a federal priority in the next package.

“Before the pandemic, more than 50 percent of families with an incarcerated loved one struggled to pay for housing and food, and one in 29 children had a parent incarcerated,” the letter stated. “In addition, one in three families with an incarcerated loved one went into debt in order to stay connected with them, and women shouldered 87 percent of these costs. Now, as many facilities have suspended in-person visits and families face layoffs, furloughs, and evictions due to the pandemic, these calls are more necessary—and cost prohibitive—than ever.”

In some jurisdictions, a local 15-minute phone call can run as high as $25, a cost that was untenable even before the current economic crisis. The Federal Communications Commission currently has jurisdiction to regulate interstate calls, but more than 80 percent of prison phone calls are in-state, meaning the vast majority of calls for the 2 million incarcerated individuals across the U.S. could not be regulated unless Congress changed the law — a challenge highlighted in the senators’ letter.

“Without action from Congress to address the rates for in-state calls, families will continue to suffer,” they wrote.

The pandemic and the nationwide protests for racial justice following George Floyd’s murder brought significant attention to conditions in U.S. jails and prisons, where there is a disproportionate rate of Covid-19 cases as compared to the broader U.S population; one recent estimate put it at 5.5 times higher. At the same time, the pandemic has made it even harder for incarcerated people to communicate with their loved ones, due to the combined stresses of expensive phone calls and the lack of in-person visitation. It’s an issue federal officials have been quietly chipping away at for months.

IN 2015, THE FCC announced it would act to address predatory in-state calling rates, but after telecom companies sued, FCC Chair Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee, in 2017 stopped defending his agency’s right to regulate those calls. Later that year, a federal court ruled that the FCC has the authority to regulate interstate prison phone calls but not in-state ones.

In June 2019, Duckworth, along with Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii; Ed Markey, D-Mass.; and Angus King, I-Maine, introduced a bill to expand the FCC’s authority to regulate prison phone calls. The Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act is named in honor of Martha Wright, a woman who filed a lawsuit in 2000 against the private prison where her grandson was living, saying the costs of calling him were unconscionably steep. The court ruled that Wright’s complaint was an issue for the FCC to handle, so she then moved to petition the agency to intervene. In 2013, the agency finally acted, voting to cap rates for interstate phone calls in jails and prisons.

Little changed following the introduction of Duckworth’s bill last year, but then the pandemic hit. In the first stimulus package authorized by Congress, to advocates’ surprise, language was included to make all phone calls free in federal facilities for the duration of the national emergency.

“It wasn’t clear who led the effort with the CARES Act … but after years of advocacy, the prison phone justice movement certainly has its allies in Congress, and it paid off in a bizarre moment,” said Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, a group focused on dismantling the prison industry. “Unfortunately, the downside of that bill is that it’s only for the duration of Covid.”

In late March, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., introduced a House bill, the Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act, which builds on Duckworth’s legislation. In addition to expanding the FCC’s authority to regulate in-state prison phone calls, Rush’s bill would also bar state and local government agencies from collecting commissions from prison phone calls and set interim rate caps during the pandemic. It was included in the HEROES Act, a supplement to the CARES Act that was passed by the House in May, a measure Tylek called “the most significant federal legislative vote on prison phone justice in history.”

Meanwhile in the Senate, Duckworth and Klobuchar continued to push on the issue. In mid-April, Duckworth organized a letter, signed by 18 other senators, urging Pai, the FCC chair, to pressure telecommunication providers to commit to reducing call rates in prisons and jails. “The FCC is uniquely positioned to seek commitments from these providers,” the senators wrote. “We applaud the FCC’s efforts to encourage traditional providers to bolster connectivity for Americans impacted by the coronavirus, most notably through the Keep Americans Connected Pledgehowever, this effort does not adequately reflect the dynamics of prison and jail telecommunication systems.”

In May, Klobuchar and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., led 27 other senators in sending a bicameral letter to the Department of Homeland Security and ICE urging them to provide free phone calls to detained people during the pandemic. In the House, Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Zoe Logfren organized 50 colleagues to also sign on.

Then in July, Pai surprised advocates by coming out forcefully on the issue. On July 16, the FCC announced a new proposed rule to significantly lower the per-minute rate caps for interstate prison phone calls, from $.21 (prepaid) and $0.25 (collect) to $0.14 for calls from prisons and $0.16 for calls from jails. The proposed rule would also cap rates for international prison phone calls for the first time. In an accompanying blog post, Pai wrote, “Not surprisingly, without effective regulation, rates for inmate calling services can be unjustly and unreasonably high and make it difficult for inmates and their loved ones to stay connected.”

Four days later, Pai sent a letter to the president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, a trade association of state utility commissioners, urging the group to take action on the “unjust and unreasonable rates” of in-state prison phone calls, which he noted disproportionately hurt Black Americans. In 33 states, rates are at least double the federal cap, and in 27 states, the first-minute charge can be up to 26 times higher than that of an interstate call. In his letter Pai pointed to recent statements NARUC made following George Floyd’s killing about addressing discrimination and racial injustice. “These are noble sentiments … but it is time for these sentiments to manifest in action,” Pai wrote.

On July 23, NARUC issued a response to Pai’s letter, saying they “agree” and will ask their members to “take a comprehensive review in their jurisdictions around these rates and take action where warranted.” NARUC president Brandon Presley noted that in some states, corrections officials negotiate prison phone call contracts “outside the purview of state public service commissions,” so they would need to be involved, in addition to governors. But NARUC opposes expanding the FCC’s power over in-state prison calls, and in the last few weeks Pai has begun campaigning more vocally for Congress to give his agency that authority. While Pai has not endorsed Duckworth’s bill specifically, he has endorsed the most significant component of her bill. On Thursday the FCC voted to advance the proposed rule to lower interstate prison phone call rates, setting the stage for public comment.

 

Tylek said no activist anticipated this momentum from the FCC. “We can’t say we expected Commissioner Pai would come out and say, ‘State regulators, all of you are writing Black Lives Matter statements but aren’t doing anything about prison phone calls,’” she said, adding, “Having a pro-industry, Trump-appointee conservative acknowledging the issue is very positive for the movement and a welcome change.”

Pressure has continued to ramp up in the Senate to get this included in the next stimulus package. Advocates are planning to deliver a petition to Congress next week with over 75,000 signatures urging the passage of phone justice legislation, and this past Tuesday, Klobuchar formally signed onto Duckworth’s bill, and joined her in circulating the Dear Colleague letter on Thursday. Advocates say they are particularly excited about Klobuchar’s leadership since she has a good record of being able to corral Republicans onto legislation.

The real Republican gatekeeper on this issue is Sen. Roger Wicker, the chair of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Tylek says Wicker’s office has met with them, but he has not committed to support the legislation. Wicker’s office did not return requests for comment. 

Stuck-at-Home Parents Want More Support for Home Schooling

Originally published in Bloomberg Businessweek on July 22, 2020.
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Christine Morgan, a mother in Peachtree City, Ga., calls herself “a big proponent of public schools.” But after dealing with her district’s remote-learning offerings this past spring—which she says were scant on instruction and heavy on busywork—she decided to look at home schooling for her rising fourth grader. “I would consider sending my kid back to brick-and-mortar school if everyone were taking the virus seriously and taking precautions,” she says. “But it’s Georgia, and they are not.”

Before the Covid-19 pandemic began, about 4% of school-age children in the U.S. were home-schooled, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. Many more families are weighing the option for the fall, either frustrated with remote learning through their public school or nervous about the health risks of sending their children into buildings with others. School choice proponents, who’ve long advocated that per-pupil spending should “follow the child” wherever they seek their education, hope to capitalize on the shift. And with the backing of President Trump and Republicans in Congress, home schooling could get the biggest boost it’s ever gotten from the federal government in the next round of stimulus funding.

In April the American Federation for Children, a national school choice group that was formerly chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, commissioned a poll and found that 40% of families were more likely to consider home schooling even after lockdowns ended. Tommy Schultz, the group’s vice president, says the results were initially met with skepticism: “Some people were saying, ‘Well, those numbers are inflated and it’s too early to tell.’ ” But in late May, a separate Ipsos/USA Today poll found 60% of parents were considering home schooling in the fall and 30% were “very likely” to make the switch.

“We started putting on social media, ‘Hey, we’re spending on average $15,000 per kid for public schools. Shouldn’t families get some of that back to support home education?’ and that sort of messaging just skyrocketed in terms of interest and engagement,” Schultz says. “We’ve been running online petitions, and it’s the single largest spike in advocacy we’ve ever seen.”

Brittany Wade, a mother of five in Washington, D.C., is among the parents who think the government should do more to help families shoulder the cost of home schooling. Wade and her husband considered opting out of public school even before the pandemic, frustrated with what they felt was a stagnant curriculum offering too little Black history.

Wade helped her children with remote learning through the spring and says the difficulty of that experience hastened her decision to explore home schooling for the fall. She’s in the planning stages, browsing Facebook groups and talking with veteran home-schooling parents in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. “I do think there should be more support for parents that are choosing to keep their kids home,” she says. Because some of the learning apps that District of Columbia Public Schools used during the spring aren’t available during the summer, she says, “I had to pay out-of-pocket for them.”

Home-schooling families receive virtually nothing from the federal government, and some don’t want any public funding, seeing it as opening the door to government interference. But conservatives in Congress have been trying to change that. Now, with House Democrats and education groups clamoring for at least $250 billion in education stimulus funding, Republicans have their best shot in years to push through new school choice programs. Trump and DeVos support the passage of Education Freedom Scholarships, a $5 billion annual tax credit for individuals and businesses who donate to organizations that support private-school tuition or home-school expenses. Eighteen states have tax credit scholarship programs, although according to EdChoice, New Hampshire’s is the only one in which home-school students are eligible for funds.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who introduced the Education Freedom Scholarships legislation in 2019, also introduced the Helping Parents Educate Children During the Coronavirus Pandemic Act in June. The bill, which he hopes to include in the next round of stimulus, would allow parents to use 529 college savings plans to cover K-12 expenses such as tutoring, test fees, and private-school tuition.

It’s not clear whether Democrats will bite. Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, chair of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said that with only weeks until the start of the new academic year, “the administration and Secretary DeVos remain fixated on how it can siphon away resources for vouchers and other privatization schemes” instead of plugging public schools’ funding gaps.

Many school districts are scrambling to figure out how to keep students enrolled, at least in their virtual options, to avoid steep drops in per-pupil funding on top of additional budget cuts as states face a financial crisis. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has urged Congress to reject “failed ‘choice’ schemes” in any future stimulus package. Her national teachers’ union has fought aggressively against past attempts to expand federal funding for favored school choice options such as charter and private schools, and likewise sees home schooling as a way to undercut public education. “DeVos’ craven attempts to divide and privatize would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high,” Weingarten said in a statement.

Diane Ravitch, president of the Network for Public Education, an advocacy group championing public schools, is sympathetic to families that might decide on home schooling in the fall. “They won’t do it happily. They want real teachers, but they don’t want their children at risk,” she says. When Covid-19 is no longer a threat, Ravitch predicts parents who opted out will return their kids to public schools. “This isn’t going to be a permanent way of life.”

But other experts think the overlap we’re now seeing between remote schooling and home education will likely persist after the pandemic ends. Travis Pillow is the editorial director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research center based at the University of Washington Bothell. “The twin financial and public-health pressures of Covid appear to be accelerating the blurring of the lines between public education and home schooling that was already picking up steam before the pandemic,” he says. For Pillow, this would be a good thing—one that could lead to improvements and make home schooling more accessible. “We would welcome new entrants into this space,” he says, “because existing outcomes in full-time online learning have been pretty dismal.”

Over 100 Houston Doctors Slam Rep. Dan Crenshaw for “Spreading Dangerous Disinformation” On Coronavirus

Originally published in The Intercept on July 17, 2020.

MORE THAN 100 doctors, medical professionals, and emergency room physicians in the Houston area have signed their names to a letter condemning Republican Rep. Daniel Crenshaw for spreading misinformation during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been ravaging the Texas city hard in recent weeks.

The doctors didn’t mince their words.

“The COVID-19 pandemic should not be a partisan issue — that’s why even Governor Abbott is finally stalling the reopening process and implementing the mask mandates that he unwisely blocked just two short months ago,” the medical workers, who are primarily women, wrote in the letter, which is first being reported on by The Intercept. “Dan Crenshaw, on the other hand, has spewed lies for the past four months — minimizing the threat we face and spreading dangerous disinformation for self-indulgent headlines.”

Doctors rarely ever make such pointed political statements, but the urgency of the coronavirus crisis — and the real harm caused by disinformation spread by elected officials — prompted the Houston-area physicians to speak up, especially as Republicans in the state continued to promote large, indoor gatherings against the advice of public health experts.

“As everyone is seeing right now with Dr. Fauci, the medical community is just getting raked over the coals, and undermined and blamed,” Dr. Christina Propst, a pediatrician in Houston who helped to organize the letter, told The Intercept. “If you’re a physician working in places like Texas and Florida, you’re just battling disinformation constantly, and it gets so exhausting and frustrating.”

The list of Crenshaw’s comments undermining the seriousness of the pandemic runs long. He has also taken it upon himself to strongly defend the Trump administration’s response to the public health crisis. In mid-April, the first-term representative recorded a video entitled “Debunking the Left’s COVID-19 Narrative” where he defended President Donald Trump’s pandemic response. (Trump tweeted the video, describing it as “BRILLIANT, A MUST-WATCH.”) Crenshaw’s campaign did not return a request for comment.

On Wednesday, Houston reported 16 new deaths from Covid-19, the first time the city had reported double-digit fatalities since the virus hit the region in March. The deaths were linked to cases that were reported in June, as the past month has seen the number of cases skyrocket in Texas and the greater Houston area.

Between Memorial Day and mid-June, Texas’s hospitalization rate shot up by 36 percent, a fact that Crenshaw has downplayed. “If you just hear 36 percent increase, that does sound like a lot. … In reality, it’s under 500 additional hospitalizations out of a state of 30 million people,” he said on his podcast. “So it’s really not a lot. … We’re so far away from being in over-capacity or even close to it that it’s laughable.”

When a Harris County judge said around the same time that Texas “may be approaching the precipice of a disaster” Crenshaw blasted her for “pure and simple fear mongering.” He also added that “people have figured out what they need to do to remain safe.” A few weeks later, he argued that “prolonged and universal closures” had been “devastating for learning and health.”

In their letter, the doctors criticized Crenshaw for “undermin[ing] the advice of our public health experts at every turn — enabling millions of his followers to the same.” This mixed messaging, they say, left medical workers “handicapped in our mission” to protect Texans from the start of the pandemic.

“We need elected officials who don’t throw out meaningless platitudes while trying to shift blame to the institutions working to keep us informed and protected,” the doctors wrote. “Please Congressman Crenshaw. We are tired. We are your neighbors. … We implore you to stop playing politics with our lives, stop spreading dangerous disinformation, and start leading by example.”

Propst said that she felt the tide start to change among physicians a few weeks ago, back when the Republican Party of Texas made clear it had no intention of canceling its in-person biennial convention, where 6,000 people were expected to convene inside Houston’s George Brown Convention Center. Propst and some fellow female colleagues began organizing a petition and phone calls to pressure the Texas Medical Association to condemn the event, which at the time the association was still sponsoring. The internal lobbying was successful and in late June, the president of the 50,000-member state medical association withdrew its sponsorship of the event and urged the GOP to cancel it. (Earlier this week the state Republican Party finally agreed to hold its convention online.)

“I think when people saw that organizing work, it emboldened us to speak out against more dangerous and unethical things we’ve been dealing with,” said Propst.

Crenshaw, who represents Texas’s 2nd District — which includes much of northern and western Houston — is facing off in November against Democratic challenger Sima Ladjevardian, an attorney and former adviser to Beto O’Rourke. The race is one of the seven Texas House seats that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has deemed most competitive and possible to flip.

“Now more than ever we need a leader who will listen to our medical heroes, guide Houston toward a recovery, and protect Texans with pre-existing conditions,” said Ladjevardian. “Our medical frontline heroes are begging Congressman Crenshaw to stop spreading disinformation and start acting responsibly, but he won’t.”