As school districts across the U.S. prepare to return for the fall semester, a bitter battle has emerged over whether or not to reopen classrooms for in-person learning. While there is universal agreement that in-person instruction is superior to online classes, school officials don’t have a clear idea of what a safe return looks like. Thousands of students and faculty members have already been sent home due to exposure to the virus.
Texas Democratic hopeful M.J. Hegar, who is challenging Republican Sen. John Cornyn in November, said at least part of the struggle with school reopenings has to do with the fact that the conversations around them have been extremely polarized instead of solution-focused.
“I am very concerned that the conversation is only about open or don’t open,” Hegar told Wake-Up Call. “The conversation does not seem just like so many other things in politics — it’s very this or not instead of being solution-oriented.”
Amid conflicting data from health officials, Hegar said school reopening plans should be more centered around science, data models, best practices from other countries, and guidance from public health officials. Hegar, a combat pilot and healthcare worker, said she draws upon her own experience when weighing school reopening plans.
“I’m trained in crisis management — both from the military and then from my time in healthcare. And in crisis management, when you have a crisis and lives on the line — you set milestones and rubrics and decision gates,” she said.
Ultimately, Hegar believes that the U.S. needs to get schools open again, emphasizing that in-person classrooms are especially vital to at-risk students. As a mother of two young sons of her own, plus three stepchildren, the issue is especially personal for Hegar.
“There are a lot of reasons we need our kids in schools both to support working parents, but to give kids adequate nutrition, to screen for abuse, there are social isolation issues. Not to mention, I have no replacement for a teacher — every day around here is teacher appreciation day,” she said.
Hegar said school closures have also highlighted another crisis that existed long before the pandemic: childcare. Working mothers shoulder most of the child care responsibilities and this includes taking more a more active role in their child’s virtual learning. In fact, 66% of women said they are primarily responsible for helping children with remote learning during the workday, compared with 41% of men, per a survey conducted by YouGov in partnership with USA Today and LinkedIn.
“Women do disproportionately shoulder, that,” Hegar said in reference to childcare. “It’s important to acknowledge that men are also struggling with childcare issues too,” she said. “We need to get childcare facilities in schools. We need to get to a place where we can open them again.”
As the pandemic rages on and all eyes are on the presidential election, Hegar faces an uphill battle of her own in what has long been considered a historically conservative state. Cornyn currently leads 43%, compared to Hegar’s 34%, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average.
But Hegar, who is set to have her first debate against Cornyn on October 9, remains hopeful about her chances.
“Life and death issues here in Texas are becoming less and less partisan and more about let’s find someone who is willing to listen to us who has faced our challenges and who is going to present solutions based on solving, based on accomplishing the mission,” she said.
Written and reported by senior writer Tess Bonn.
This appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.