Newly published studies by international experts in education, public health and child development, have made it clear that the continued closure of the nations’ public schools, especially those for younger students, is no longer scientifically defensible. They show that adults and children inside the schools are safe from infection if they follow the guidelines for mask-wearing, disinfection and social distancing. The evidence also shows that each day schools remain close, irreparable damage is being done to the educational and social development and mental wellbeing of tens of millions of American schoolchildren.
Last March, when new cases of virus infections were growing exponentially day by day and threatened to overwhelm New York City area hospitals, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo panicked. They imposed desperate measures in the form of draconian business lockdowns which halted the local economy in its tracks, and ordered all private and public schools to close, in the hope of halting the feared spread of the virus among children in the classrooms, who would then bring it home to their families.
The subsequent requirement for parents to stay home from their jobs to personally supervise the education of their school age children through remote classroom sessions was even more disruptive to normally family life than the closure of all “non-essential” businesses. Many parents had to address the dual challenges of working from home while at the same time managing remote learning for their children. Lower income and minority workers who had to continue going to their normal workplaces each day, leaving their children home alone to try to learn remotely, faced even greater challenges.
While the New York school closures were seen at the time as a necessary response to the still poorly-understood threat from the virus, evidence rapidly accumulated that the lockdown of schools, especially in grades pre-K to 8, may not have been necessary. Several countries around the world which kept their schools open during the pandemic suffered relatively few new infections as a result, particularly among younger students. It was also obvious from the outset that the loss of in-person learning was resulting in significant negative educational, developmental and emotional consequences for children deprived of the in-person classroom experience.
A WORLDWIDE PROBLEM IMPACTING SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN
This was not just a US problem. By last April, the pandemic had disrupted classroom education for around 90 percent of the world’s school-age children. The World Bank estimated that at the peak of the pandemic last year, 1.6 billion students were being shut out of their schools in 192 countries. More than a third had no access to remote education because their families did not have access to the internet nor the internet-enabled devices the children needed to participate.
Not only were children from poor families trapped at home being deprived of even a semblance of an effective education, but many were also suffering nutritionally because they were no longer being provided with free or subsidized school-provided lunches, as well as other health and social welfare services they had been receiving while in school each day. The school closures reinforced existing inequalities for children from poorer background in the access to and enjoyment of a quality education, while severely stunting their emotional and academic growth.
In addition to the measurable educational and psychological damage inflicted on children by these school closures, the fear generated by government attempts to justify them as necessary to halt the spread of the infection resulted in high numbers of children who have not been permitted by their parents to return to in-class learning, even after the schools have been reopened.
Last month, UNICEF urged governments around the world to only consider closing schools as an anti-Covid measure of last resort exhausted. Yet in January, at least 30 countries across the globe have ordered a fresh round of blanket school closures despite the lack of scientific evidence that such closures significantly slow the spread of infection.
LOST CLASSROOM TIME IS NEVER MADE UP
Government leaders who insist on keeping the school locked down also ignore the mounting current and historical evidence that young children never fully make up for the educational ground they lose during extended interruptions in their classroom learning.
According to a study published in November by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, children affected by long-term school closures will fall significantly behind their peers educationally. An estimated 2.6% fewer of those children will go on to college, and 4.1% more of them will drop out before completing high school. In addition, they will suffer, on average, a 1% loss in their lifetime earnings.
The study also indicates that the longer the children are deprived of classroom learning, the harder it becomes for them to make up the lost ground after their schools reopen. In addition, the impact of school closures is disproportionately greater upon students from socio-economically disadvantaged families whose parents do not have the necessary amount of time or money to invest in effectively teaching their children who are stuck at home.
NEW YORK’S RESPONSE SET AN UNFORTUNATE PATTERN
When Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo peremptorily closed the New York City public school system — the largest in the country — last March, and then refused to reopen them even after the rate of positive new tests and hospital admissions in New York fell to low levels, they set an unfortunate pattern for Democrat-governed large cities and states across the country, who were quick to close their schools as soon as infections spiked, but slow to respond to the growing demands by parents to safely reopen the schools as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, the scientific evidence was growing that the school closures were never really necessary in the first place, because healthy young children were found to have a natural immunity to the virus. Even teenagers up to age 18 were generally much less susceptible to infection than adults. Children are also much less likely to experience severe symptoms, and or to be hospitalized or die.
YOUNG CHILDREN DO NOT READILY SPREAD THE INFECTION
But the key question about the safety of school openings was always about the possibility of virus transmission. The reasonable initial fear was that open schools might result in asymptomatic but virus-infected kids roaming the hallways and unwittingly transmitting the virus to their teachers in the classroom and school staff. They would then bring it back to their own families, further spreading it throughout the community.
“Back in August and September, we did not have a lot of data” to make a recommendation on schools, said Margaret Honein, a member of the CDC’s Covid-19 team. But since then, there has been a mountain of new research based on the experiences of school systems which have reopened safely across the country and around the world. The results from their experience over the past six months are clear, and any doubts raised earlier about the safety of school reopening have by now been resolved to the satisfaction of public health experts around the world.
In May 2020, a small Irish study of more than 1,000 young students and education workers with Covid found “no case of onward transmission” to any children or adults. In June 2020, a Singapore study of three Covid clusters found that “children are not the primary drivers” of outbreaks and that “the risk of transmission among children in schools, especially preschools, is likely to be low.”
In September, Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told the Washington Post that, “Everyone had a fear there would be explosive outbreaks of transmission in the schools. [Now] we have to say that, to date, we have not seen those in the younger kids.”
In a January 2021 paper by Norwegian researchers who contact-traced more than 200 school children ages 5 to 13 with Covid, they found “no cases of virus spread in school settings.”
A study by researchers at Duke University of 35 North Carolina school districts which had resumed in-person teaching found no cases of child-to-adult virus spread in their schools, leading them to conclude that masking and social distancing is sufficient to prevent school outbreaks.
LESSONS FROM EARLIER SCHOOL OUTBREAKS WERE WRONG
Subsequent studies by public health experts of now famous school outbreaks that seemed to contradict those conclusions have found other non-school-related factors that were primarily responsible for the spread of the virus.
For example, last May, shortly after the Israeli government reopened a high school in Yerushalayim, new Covid infections quickly mushroomed, spreading through the students’ homes and then moving to other schools and neighborhoods, ultimately infecting hundreds of students, teachers and relatives.
The lesson to be learned from that experience seemed to be obvious: If you open your schools, Covid cases will explode, rapidly spreading throughout the country, and people will die. Except that it was not that simple. A follow-up study of that cluster found that at the same time that Israel reopened that school, it also eased restrictions on large group gatherings. “Easing restrictions on large scale gatherings was the major influence on this resurgence,” the study’s authors concluded. “No increase was observed in Covid … following school reopening.”
The initial conclusion that the Yerushalayim school opening had caused the outbreak was wrong. The proper lesson to be learned from that case was that if you relax social-distancing measures in communities without access to vaccines, Covid cases will explode and then ripple into the schools.
THE ARGUMENTS FOR OPENING SCHOOLS NOW
These now well-proven facts have led to a growing consensus among public health experts that school-age children are much safer from Covid infection by one another while in their classroom than they are while stuck at home, potentially in close contact to asymptomatic family members and neighbors.
Meanwhile, over the past six months, the evidence that families in general, and children in particular, are struggling with the damaging consequences of extended school closures has steadily mounted. Matthew Snape, a pediatric researcher at the University of Oxford, said, “There is clear evidence that shutting schools harms students directly, in terms of both their education and their mental and social health.”
Since the lockdowns began, nationwide school attendance, both in person and remotely, has dropped significantly and continues to decline as the lockdowns persist. In standardized online testing, many remote learning students have fallen significantly behind expectations in math, and to a lesser extent in reading ability.
In Las Vegas, a cluster of student suicides has recently pushed local officials to reopen the city’s elementary schools ahead of schedule. Nationwide, mental health visits to hospital emergency departments rose by 24% for children ages 5-11 between April and October of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019, and by 31% for 12- to 17-year-olds.
According to the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, as of December, about 55% of school districts across the country were offering remote learning to their students at least part of the time, resulting in a measurable decline in student academic performance and mental health.
UNWELCOME NEWS FOR DEMOCRATS AND TEACHERS’ UNIONS
But these findings, pointing to the urgent necessity to reopen shuttered schools, have not been welcomed by Democrat city and state officials, who relish their new lockdown powers, or by the politically influential teachers’ unions. They prefer to see the schools closed while their teachers remain on the public-school payrolls, without being required to do much, if any, real teaching of their students.
But the main political excuse for continuing to keep schools around the nation closed was exposed as a lie in late January, when President Biden’s newly appointed CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, let the cat out of the bag. At her first official press briefing, Walensky clearly stated that because the threat of infections in schools is so low, it is generally safe for teachers to return to their classrooms prior to getting the Covid vaccine, as long as they are wearing masks and practicing social distancing.
CDC FINDINGS AN EMBARRASSMENT FOR A NEW PRESIDENT
This was a major political embarrassment for President Biden, who had relied heavily on generous support from the national teachers’ unions during last year’s presidential campaign. To underline his close relationship with those unions, National Education Association President Becky Pringle and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, were among Biden’s first official guests at the White House after his inauguration.
Biden had also made Trump’s alleged mishandling of the pandemic a major campaign issue, and announced his determination to safely reopen the nation’s classrooms as quickly as possible once taking office. More specifically, he promised to reopen a majority of schools across the country before the end of his first 100 days in office, and called the lack of classroom time for the students of America a “national emergency.”
But as soon as he entered the White House, Biden began to waffle on those promises, adding costly and lengthy preconditions to their fulfillment, such as requiring upgrades or the installation of new ventilation systems in school buildings that would delay a full return to nationwide classroom learning, especially in the inner cities, for months or even years to come.
Biden’s White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, was embarrassed at her next news conference by a question referring to Dr. Walensky’s offhand statement confirming the now well-known scientific findings that school buildings and classrooms where masks are worn and social distancing is practiced are among the safest places to be during a Covid outbreak.
BIDEN’S SPOKESWOMAN ON THE DEFENSIVE
Walensky’s clear statement of the broad scientific consensus on the issue undercut the demands being made by teachers’ union leaders around the country that all their members must be vaccinated before their public schools should be allowed to reopen for in-person learning.
Psaki struggled to explain why the Biden administration was not “following the science” as the president had promised he would do in dealing with the pandemic, by demanding immediate nationwide school reopenings. Psaki then sought to “clarify” that Walensky was only speaking in her “personal capacity” when she made her statement at a CDC press conference that teachers could return safely to their classrooms without needing to be vaccinated first.
Psaki then retreated further, telling reporters that the question would not be finally resolved until the CDC released an entirely new set of school reopening guidelines based on the latest scientific findings, which were expected within a few days.
In fact, it was clear that Walensky was put under intense pressure from the Biden White House to revise the guidelines in light of the political vulnerability of the teachers’ unions on the issue. The final version of the CDC guidelines, which were released well behind schedule in mid-February, deliberately fudged its answer to the crucial question of whether schools needed to delay reopening until all teachers had been vaccinated. While the guidelines praised that idea as a worthy goal, they then suggested that it might not be practical given the limitations on current vaccine supplies.
At the CDC press conference where the new guidelines were released, Dr. Walensky clearly seemed defensive about the appearance of political influence to make them more palatable to teachers’ union demands for a slowdown in the school reopening process. Walensky felt the necessity to emphasize to reporters that the process of drafting them was “free of political meddling,” and stressed that the “CDC is not mandating that schools reopen. These recommendations simply provide schools a long-needed roadmap for how to do so safely under different levels of disease in the community.”
BIDEN RUNNING OUT OF EXCUSES
President Biden quickly issued a statement hailing the new CDC guidelines for being based upon the “best available scientific evidence on how to reopen schools safely.” But then, in another concession to teachers’ union demands, Biden also said that some schools will need more personnel, resources and supplies in order to reopen safely.
“These needs cost money. But the cost of keeping our children, families, and educators safe is nothing when compared with the cost of inaction,” Biden said. “Today, an entire generation of young people is on the brink of being set back up to a year or more in their learning.” But the CDC guidelines for reopening, which had clearly been watered down compared to Walensky’s earlier statement, as the result of political pressure from the White House, failed to reflect the sense of urgency about the need to reopen schools as quickly as possible, which Biden has been talking about for months.
To further explain why he is not publicly demanding that schools reopen safely right now, Biden said that would not be possible until the government provides the extra money needed by the nation’s K-12 schools to make the necessary preparations. Biden’s proposed solution has been to demand that Congress immediately pass his $1.9 trillion Covid relief package, which includes $130 billion for reopening the schools. But Biden ignores the fact that the five relief packages passed by Congress last year already contained $68 billion for Covid-19 mitigation projects in the nation’s K-12 schools, and most of that money is still unspent.
Furthermore, yeshivos and Catholic schools around the country, which do not have access to the taxpayer-funded resources of the public schools, have already managed to safely reopen for fulltime classroom learning five days a week, with little additional funding or delay.
BIDEN’S SHIFTING SCHOOL REOPENING TARGET
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was also forced to backtrack on Biden’s promise to reopen half the nation’s schools by the end of his first 100 days in office. First, she explained that Biden had only meant to promise that more than half of schools would be open for in-person instruction at least one day a week, and that the promise only applied to K-8 grade schools whose younger children are mostly immune to the virus anyway.
When the media roused itself and pointed out that Psaki’s caveats had made Biden’s original school reopening promise meaningless, she lamely responded that the president’s goal was to reopen the nation’s school classrooms for five days a week learning as soon as possible, but that she could not commit the administration to a definite date.
That answer only further infuriated parents of school-age children around the country who have increasingly lost patience with their own local Democrat leaders for keeping their children’s public-school buildings closed, with no firm date for full reopening in sight.
Only the national teachers’ union leaders appeared satisfied by the Biden administration’s ambiguous and constantly changing position on the school reopening issue. They were obviously relieved that the new CDC guidelines avoided directly challenging their delaying tactics and demands, and were vague enough to enable the unions to pretend that they were part of the solution rather than the problem.
ANGRY AND DISAPPOINTED PARENTS REBELLING
Disappointed parents, who had hoped the new CDC guidelines would expedite the reopening the nation’s schools, expressed their growing frustration and outrage by taking direct political action against local officials who have insisted on keeping the schools closed.
In New York City, the growing political pressure from angry parents demanding that their children’s schools be reopened eventually became too powerful for Mayor de Blasio to resist. After changing course, and agreeing to partially reopen public schools from grades pre-K to 8 in December, de Blasio was eager to take the credit for the limited reopening of the city’s public high schools last week to in-person learning for the first time in almost a year.
Even in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s liberal bastion of San Francisco, where the local school board recently found it necessary to remove the names of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and even Abraham Lincoln from their still-closed school buildings to advance the cause of racial justice, local parents have had enough. They have launched an effort to recall the president and vice president of the school board and school commissioner Faauuga Moliga. In addition, the San Francisco city attorney has sued the school district for violating California’s Constitution and equal rights laws by not providing in-person instruction for the city’s children.
Dr. Jeanne Noble, the head of the Covid response team at the University of California hospital in San Francisco, said the revised CDC guidelines had taken an unnecessarily “conservative approach, no longer supported by the best data, that adolescents represent a higher risk for in-school transmission.” She added that the CDC had created a false linkage between community transmission rates and school reopenings, “despite data from North Carolina and Wisconsin that suggest community prevalence [of the virus] does not predict school transmission, while mask adherence does.”
She was referring to a study of 17 schools in rural Wisconsin that reopened in the fall requiring only the wearing of masks, and the dividing of students into small groups. While there were some new Covid cases reported, the rate of new infections in the reopened Wisconsin schools was 37% lower than in the surrounding communities.
LIFELONG DAMAGE TO STUDENTS LOCKED OUT OF CLASSROOMS
Meanwhile, a September report published by the European OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) agency reviewed detailed historical data from several countries on the long-term economic effects on student skills resulting from nationwide school closures lasting for several months.
“In 1990, for example, teachers in the Walloon part of Belgium went on strike for several months, closing almost all the schools repeatedly for up to six weeks at a time over several months,” the OECD report said. A study was conducted in 2010 which “compared the development of the affected pupils [in Walloon] with those in the Flemish part of Belgium, which was not affected by the strike-related school closures. Results suggest that the school closures have led to an increase in grade repetition and, in the long run, to lower educational attainment, including lower completion of degrees at higher education levels.”
The OECD report cited similar impacts on students who lost extensive amounts of classroom time during a two-month long elementary school teacher-strike in Ontario, Canada, in 1975, and a series of strike-related school closures in Argentina.
Another example of the impact on students of extended school closures resulted by the decision by the German government in 1966 to standardize school schedules nationwide by instituting two shortened school years in many German states. The first lasted from April to November 1966, and the second from December 1966 to July 1967. As a result, the students affected received a total of three quarters of a year less classroom instruction during the period than students attending schools elsewhere in Germany.
The long-term loss in academic skills for the affected students was tracked for many years. Even when those students reached the early 50s to late 60s age group, their math skills were still measurably lower because of their two years of short schooling. In addition, the students affected by the short German school years earned an average of about 5% les earned income during their working lives.
This is the kind of outcome we can expect for those American students who have already lost up to a year of classroom time due to the Covid lockdowns. Their long-term prospects, as well as their current mental health and wellbeing, will continue to deteriorate the longer the Democrats and the teachers’ unions insist upon continuing to lock them out of their classrooms.