Analysis: Texas politicians await our instructions, but what do voters want?

Respiratory unit COVID-19 patient Earl Sprunger, 67, watches as RN Whitney Thiry checks him during a routine check-in at Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022. (Annie Mulligan For The Texas Tribune, Annie Mulligan For The Texas Tribune)

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Set aside those arguments about COVID-19 masks and vaccines for a second. Look at what Kristen McLaury, a nurse and unit manager at a Montgomery County hospital, told The Texas Tribune’s Eleanor Klibanoff last weekend.

“I work 60 hours a week and I don’t see my child, I don’t see my husband, so that I can come and care for you while you yell at me because you’re upset that you have a disease that I told you how to prevent in the first place,” said McLaury, who works at Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital.

That’s how this works right now. The omicron variant of COVID-19 isn’t killing people at the rate delta did, but it’s filling hospitals. It’s crowding out people who would otherwise be in facilities that weren’t built and staffed for overwhelming two-year (and counting) pandemics.

It hasn’t come down to whether we would prefer restaurants and bars to hospitals, but we are playing at the edges of questions like that.

It’s one test of what Texans are willing to do to keep things from spinning out of control, of whether there are situations where “we” is more important than “me.” Some of the same folks who’ll stop and let you pull into line in a grocery store parking lot don’t seem willing to sacrifice a little to keep the hospitals from filling up, either by staying out of crowds or by taking precautions against spreading this pernicious, persistent virus.

We’re capable of empathy, but we’re also easily distracted. When a polar vortex hit the state and caused widespread electric blackouts, there were lots of stories about neighbors helping one another out, the way they do after hurricanes and tornadoes and fires.

The politicians jumped when voters demanded a fix, but the public’s active anger cooled in a matter of weeks. Elected officials and regulators still had industry lobbyists and execs to talk to, though. Some regulators were replaced. Some electric plants that weren’t ready for freezing weather have been winterized. But their suppliers in the natural gas industry escaped harsh new requirements. Politicians, with their fingers crossed behind their backs, say they can “guarantee” there won’t be blackouts this year.

They know cold 2022 voters will be angry 2022 voters, reminded of what happened in February 2021, and they’re betting the weather won’t act up and that the power will stay on if it does.

When students were sent home from schools in COVID-19’s first wave and second wave and third wave, we found out just what happens when they’re not in classrooms.

They don’t learn as much. Their “learning loss” over the last couple of years is showing up in their scores on statewide tests. In 2021, 32% of third graders “did not meet” the reading standard on the state’s STAAR test, up from 24% in 2019 — an 8-percentage-point increase. On math tests, the number of third graders below standard rose 17 percentage points over that period.

Parents are alarmed. Teachers are alarmed. And the politicians in Austin are more preoccupied with regulating which books kids are reading than with clear evidence that their ability to read anything at all is plummeting. Which books are on the library shelves isn’t the most important trouble spot in public schools in Texas, but you wouldn’t know that from the work of the Texas Legislature.

Republican lawmakers were fretting over whispers that lessons and reading material about racism and what they term critical race theory had overtaken the state’s classrooms, that the 6 million kids in those schools should be in classrooms instead of at home, but without rules requiring masks or vaccinations or proof of negative coronavirus tests.

Lots of those arguments are important, but they’re secondary to keeping people healthy, sheltered against the weather and educated.

It’s election season, an opportunity for voters to weigh in. Politicians are attentive to the desires of the people who elect them. If the way to win an election is to keep special interests happy enough to pay for reelection, to keep partisans stirred up over culture wars, to tell people they don’t have to do any of the hard things that would limit the pandemic’s damage, then that’s what they’ll do.

They’ll do the other stuff, too, but only if voters tell them to.