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ONALASKA, Wisconsin — Jeanenne and her granddaughter don’t agree on a lot when it comes to politics. Jeanenne is a lifelong Republican; Elise plans to cast her first-ever vote in November for Joe Biden.
But when it comes to one of the central questions facing the country, whether and how America’s schools should reopen in the fall, they agree: Maybe. But probably not. Not yet.
"I just don’t see how it will work," Elise said.
Jeanenne supports Donald Trump, but on this issue, she sees things differently than the president, who has doubled down on a hardline demand for schools to reopen despite the continuing coronavirus pandemic — under the threat of losing federal money.
"It’s fine and good to say, ‘Yes, we’re going to open up,’ and I can understand that," said Jeanenne, who used to work in schools. "But you haven’t spent time in classrooms. It just takes one person being sick."
Even as Trump has worked to turn school reopening into another black-and-white issue, many Republican voters, like Jeanenne, have failed to fall in lockstep behind him.
Interviews with two dozen women voters this week in Onalaska, a small city outside of La Crosse, in western Wisconsin, showed how the issue has divided Republicans and blurred party lines — a rarity in an era of sharp political polarization.
Just one voter in Onalaska said she agreed with Trump that schools should fully reopen no matter what. Only two vehemently disagreed.
For everyone else, Republican, Democrat, and independent, there was something virtually unheard of in the Trump era: lots and lots of nuance. And it was agonizing.
"I don’t know, I don’t even know," said Hillary, the mother of a 10-year-old son in a small town south of La Crosse. Hillary typically voted Republican, she said, but had not yet made up her mind about who to vote for in 2020.
"I think, probably, schools should open. I see where [Trump] is coming from — you can put some protocols in place. But then — people are asymptomatic, and schools are a germ factory, so I don’t know."
On an issue that is likely to be near the front of voters’ minds on Election Day, the yawning gap between Trump’s stance and the concerns of many of the women in Onalaska could be a sign of a risk to his campaign.
They are kinds of voters that Trump will need to win over if he is going to hold onto the pivotal states of Wisconsin and Michigan. Most live in the suburbs and small towns that surround cities like La Crosse, on the bluffs of the Mississippi River — places that flipped to Trump in the last election, after voting for Barack Obama in 2012.
In interviews, independent and undecided voters uniformly said they disagreed with the president. And even some Republicans said something especially rare about Trump: “I don’t agree with him on that one.”
"I understand where he’s coming from, but I think it should be local," said Alana, a Republican voter in La Crosse who said she planned to vote for Trump in 2020.
She wanted schools in Wisconsin open, she said, but she had family members who had died of the coronavirus in Florida. A national mandate to reopen, Alana said, didn’t make sense. “You can’t just reopen everywhere — you have to know the cases.”
Even some conservative voters who were skeptical of the pandemic’s severity questioned Trump’s stance. School reopenings tugged at deep, personal fears that they struggled to square with politics.
"I have grandkids, and I feel so sad for them. My grandson missed his eighth-grade graduation. But I don’t want them getting sick," said Anne, a Republican voter in La Crosse.
"My brother is a teacher in the [Twin] Cities, and he’s thinking about retiring. They’ve made out their wills, because you just don’t know," Anne said. "Then again, you do wonder, is this all going to go away after November?"
Polls, too, have found that Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are isolated from large parts of their party when it comes to schools reopening: Just 1 in 10 Americans said they thought schools should reopen as usual next year. In Florida, now a coronavirus hot spot, 62% of voters said it would be unsafe to send kids to K–12 schools in the fall, including 26% of Republican respondents and 65% of independents.
Still, the Trump administration has urged Republicans to condition badly-needed federal stimulus money for schools on whether or not they reopen fully.
Under pressure from the president, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday released new guidelines for schools that focused on reopenings, immediately frustrating some epidemiologists and public health experts. Trump earlier this month called the initial CDC guidelines “impractical” and said he disagreed with them.
There is a growing gap, too, between the Trump administration’s stance and the reality in many school districts. Many of the country’s largest districts have already said they will not reopen in-person schooling in the fall. After DeVos repeatedly skewered a large district, Fairfax County in Virginia, for its initial plan to bring students back to school only two days a week, Fairfax said it would start the school year entirely online — an even more significant departure from the administration’s plans. The private school attended by Trump’s son, Barron, also said it would not reopen fully.
Most of the voters in Onalaska favored the kind of options that DeVos and Trump have sharply criticized: Students attending school in different shifts, or a mix of virtual and online schooling that has students in classrooms just a few days a week.
"I would hope for five days [a week], but I’m really open to anything less than that, if that’s what it needs to be,” said Chris, a Republican and Trump supporter in West Salem, a La Crosse suburb.
The nuance, and the anxiety, of school reopening cuts both ways. Some Democrats in Onalaska, used to starkly opposing most of Trump’s policies, expressed empathy for the president’s desire to reopen schools. They worried about the mental health of their children and grandchildren, they said. But they feared that full reopenings were unsafe.
Those stances can be seen in Biden’s campaign, which has urged caution on school reopening rather than opposing it altogether. A proposal he released last week called for curbing the virus and increasing funding before returning to in-person learning.
Sue, a staunch supporter of the president, was the only voter who had no doubts about school reopening in the fall. In some states, she said, not a single child had died, and she saw no risk for her own children.
Her husband was an elementary school principal in the Milwaukee suburbs, on the other side of the state. Was she worried about his health if schools reopened?
"I’m not. Faith in God really helps," she said. "Everyone has to die sometime. It’s just a matter of when."