Ms. Work-to-Rule, chair of the local teacher’s union, smiles icily at the bezel. The weekly Zoom conference with the district superintendent and his many assistants is not going in the direction she would like.

As schools across the country prepare to resume in-person classes, Covid purists insist on strict testing, vaccine proofs and other protections. If draconian demands are not met, a few big-city locals threaten teacher strikes. Some states require masks for students and teachers regardless of vaccination status. Others prohibit districts from requiring students to wear masks at all. School board meetings might be...

Ms. Work-to-Rule, chair of the local teacher’s union, smiles icily at the bezel. The weekly Zoom conference with the district superintendent and his many assistants is not going in the direction she would like.

As schools across the country prepare to resume in-person classes, Covid purists insist on strict testing, vaccine proofs and other protections. If draconian demands are not met, a few big-city locals threaten teacher strikes. Some states require masks for students and teachers regardless of vaccination status. Others prohibit districts from requiring students to wear masks at all. School board meetings might be battlegrounds. The mild but highly contagious variant, Omicron, puts everyone — administrators, teachers, parents, and students — on edge.

Even accounting for stress, the pandemic’s greatest K-12 casualty has been academic proficiency. Conscientious, bookish, and parent-driven students have tended to meet topsy-turvy schedules and show up remotely or in person. The less able and lazy have not. Truancy has been rampant, and worst among the least able. All the while, the teachers’ unions and elected public officials who cater to them — most glaringly in blue states and metro districts — have put self-interest first, claiming otherwise, hoping to extract contractual advantages from the crisis.

“I’m a concept person, not a fact person,” Ms. Work-to-Rule declares. “Yet the facts are, we have a community responsibility to flatten the latest curve.”

She glances out the window where it’s starting to snow with a wintry mix. God, I love Zoom! she thinks sheepishly, while she reminds the superintendent that the current union contract is quite specific about student and teacher health security. She mentions the federal disability law. The district will need to find counselors, nurses, and after-school monitors, should it seek to re-open all school facilities. “Don’t forget the buses and bus drivers,” she adds.

“Our teachers and students must feel safe,” Ms. Work-to-Rule continues. The state education association is urging four-day workweeks with extended remote learning, as well as having proposed “combat pay” in schools that have re-opened. She peeks at the bullet list of talking points on her desk that her union’s legal staff has sent to all district chairs, ensuring a uniform state-wide voice.

Public school closures began in March 2019. Since then, about 100,000 American elementary and secondary schools in 18,000 semi-autonomous local districts have responded. Covid precautions, protocols, shutdowns and flex schedules from school to district to county to state exist in infinite variations. Disruption is the only common denominator.

Affluent and ambitious parents have coped and searched out such alternatives as private and charter schools, summer camps, tutors, and homeschooling. Children whose parents — or single parent — cannot adapt to remote learning have been the biggest losers. For those who depend on schools for non-academic services, the closures have been a disaster. Consider Zoom learning in a Section 8 apartment with a dicey Internet connection and school-issued laptop, no quiet or private space, and the prying lens revealing dire home circumstances.

Before school shutdowns, academic performance lagged, notably for non-Asian minorities. Extreme multicultural ideology had swamped the curriculum. These conditions persist, with more students than ever below grade-level. Yet Ms. Work-to-Rule and her colleagues believe in discovery learning, multiple intelligences, and hands-on projects. They fixate on diversity, climate apocalypse, and reimagining history. Critical Race Theory explains white privilege and black underperformance, they think. Actually, they know it in their hearts.

When designing her own lessons, Ms. Work-to-Rule calls herself a Guide on the Side. She detests Drill and Kill Learning. This includes memorizing the alphabet and multiplication tables. It extends to chronology, recitation, spelling and pop quizzes.

For many faculties, learning by entertainment is the watchword. With a flip of a switch, multimedia makes work easier for teachers. Instead of soul-crushing spelling tests or pledges of allegiance, happy pink chipmunks break-dance across desktops, tablets, and wallboards. In catchy rap rhymes, they urge kids to Respect Differences and to Learn to Grow. Dwarves pop up on screens, congratulating pupils on getting math and vocabulary answers right.

Only the delusional believe there’s an upside to this electric whirligig, perhaps something positive with motor skills. Mesmerized by kinetics and noises, many ten-year-olds find it impossible to concentrate, write or read. Don’t ask too hard about Dad’s last-read book or essay. He’s glued to his 72-inch wall screen and iPhone. And who knows any longer? The school principal might be heavily into Candy Crush or a huge Ninja Turtles fan.

(A question for another day: can software publishers and instructional-materials developers imagine anything more grand than cartoon chipmunks, dwarves and kitsch in a thousand flavors? Textbook marketers and editors shift the blame for dreck to consumer demand, well probed in focus groups of curriculum supervisors and purchase committees.)

Parents have reason to worry. Some face relentless school-based crusades to undermine family, flag and religion. Others simply value academic content and courtesy. Most realize good grammar and speech, numeracy and decency are not electives if their children are to prosper. The quality of thought and character that employers and elites expect as a baseline remains constant, and plenty of capable novices are eager to fill the openings.

Sometimes, a dedicated teacher or coach can change lives. But in many places, models of scholarship and high culture no longer exist. The 1940s Brooklyn teacher who ruthlessly tutored uncouth Norman Podhoretz in the ways and language of the upper crust would today be admonished or worse. In inner-city high schools, the teaching corps for the most part dresses, behaves and thinks like social workers and security guards. Grace meets suspicion and aggression. Bad behavior wins if it wants to.

“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery,” said Horace Mann, architect of the nation’s public school system. Mann sought for every American child to receive a free basic education — reading, writing, arithmetic, and civics — funded by local taxes. Some 175 years later, the vast majority of voters and parents concur. An electorate unable to appraise its governments’ policies imperils national security and general welfare, most Americans agree.

But scripted by Democratic partisans, and channeled through the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, Ms. Work-to-Rule’s mindset is disabling Mann’s balance wheel. Bloated responsibilities drive even minimal standards to the margin, and identity politics finish the job. Discarding essentials, and using Covid as a bargaining chip, progressive educators condemn the disadvantaged to mediocrity or clientage. What’s more contemptible, they do so in the name of equity, health and compassion.