But those are not the only survey results worth noting. The priorities people named—weighing kids falling behind academically versus the health and safety of teachers and students—track with race and income in a way that highlights the Republican focus on stereotypical suburban moms, by which they mean white suburban moms, because Republicans.
White people are the least likely to say that a lot of consideration in school reopening decisions should be given to whether teachers or students will get or spread COVID-19. Which makes a certain amount of sense as white people have been less likely to be hospitalized or die from the virus than Black or Latino people. Significantly, lower-income people were also more likely than higher-income people to say that the health risks of reopening should be considered heavily. Which, again, makes some sense because low-income areas have been hit harder than high-income areas.
In short, people whose communities are less likely to have experienced the most severe impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are less likely to think that the possibility of teachers and students getting and spreading the virus should be weighed heavily in school reopening decisions. White people were also the most likely to want to heavily weigh the possibility of kids falling behind academically and the possibility that students’ emotional well-being would be negatively impacted if they didn’t attend school in person.
All of which is to say that Republicans are tailoring their message to the voters they hope to reach anyway: white people and higher-income people. We can debate these priorities for school reopenings all day long, but Republicans know how to identify a wedge issue and use it.
This is, of course, going to be an explicitly anti-union wedge Republicans are trying to drive. “Let’s put our kids education & mental health ahead of union leaders,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tweeted. It’s a hugely dishonest attack since as American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten’s recent media barrage makes clear, she really, really wants to find a way to get her members back in schools. It’s the teachers themselves pressuring the union leaders on this. But dishonesty has never much worried Republicans when it comes to anti-union rhetoric.
There’s one more data point in the Pew survey that’s worth noting, though: A majority of people also said that schools that aren’t currently open in person should wait to reopen until teachers have been vaccinated against COVID-19—the second recent poll with this result. Republicans want this to be simple: If people want schools open, it should just happen, or else teachers unions and Democrats should pay the price. But as it turns out, there’s more nuance to public opinion than fits easily in a Republican talking point. That could be something with which to pry out this particular wedge: If you want schools open, vaccinate teachers—and, while you’re at it, invest in ventilation and other school safety measures.