There’s a wave of anti-intellectualism sweeping America. There are people across the country who deny evidence, invent their own facts and live in their own fantasyland. We saw it in the Republicans who denied the reality of the Biden election victory and we see it now in the teachers unions that are shutting down schools and marring children’s lives.
What are the facts when it comes to Covid-19 and schooling?
The first fact is that remote learning is a disaster, especially for disadvantaged students.
I recommend an article Alec MacGillis wrote for ProPublica last fall on how things were going for students in Baltimore. It paints a finely grained portrait of chaos: online classes in which almost no students show up, schedules rearranged at the last minute, Zoom links that are inaccessible. The 12-year-old boy at the center of the piece was passionate about school before the pandemic, but by last fall he was talking about school in the past tense.
The broader data on school closure is horrendous. Mental health problems have increased. Many children have simply vanished from official oversight. Schools in Hillsborough County, Fla., started the year missing 7,000 students.
The children who are attending aren’t learning much. A Stanford study suggested that the average student has lost at least a third of a year’s worth of learning in reading and three-quarters of a year’s worth of learning in math.
The effects could be long term. One study found that the loss of learning could reduce the lifetime income of today’s American students by 3 percent. A study in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that their increased financial stress could be associated with a collective loss of 13.8 million years of life.
The second fact is in-person learning can be done safely with the right precautions. This was unclear last March and April, but now study after study has shown that schools can be safe. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just attested to this fact. The evidence seems clear.
Private and some public schools are already operating safely all around the country, with little evidence that attendance is spreading the virus.
The third fact is that teachers unions don’t seem to have adjusted to the facts. In Washington, Chicago and elsewhere, unions have managed to shut down in-class instruction. The Chicago public schools union is on the verge of an illegal strike, even though 130 private schools and 2,000 early learning centers have been open safely since the fall.
The Chicago district installed air purifiers in classrooms, conducted ventilation tests, increased rapid testing and held more than 60 meetings with union leaders, but so far the union has been able to keep public schools from reopening.
The union says its members won’t go back to work so long as the city’s positive test rate is above 3 percent. Where did it get that threshold as the basis for its negotiating stance? It pulled it out of thin air.
The fourth fact is that this situation is especially devastating to poorer Black and brown students. Many affluent kids have fled the public school disaster for private schools. It’s Black and brown kids who live in cities with progressive mayors and powerful unions, and those are the places where in-school learning has been closed down.
A study by Michael T. Hartney and Leslie Finger found that political partisanship and teacher union strength explain how school boards approached reopening. Another survey, conducted last year by Chalkbeat and The Associated Press, found that roughly half of white students had access to in-person learning, compared with a quarter of Black and Hispanic kids.
Readers, many of us got involved in the Black Lives Matter marches last summer. I guess I would ask you, do Black lives matter to you only when they serve your political purpose? If not, shouldn’t we all be marching to get Black and brown children back safely into schools right now?
There were many haunting moments in MacGillis’s ProPublica piece. One comes when he asks the National Education Association president, Becky Pringle, about her claim that reopening schools could lead to the death of 50,000 children. MacGillis points out to her that, in fact, the number of American children known to have died of Covid-19 up to that point is around 100.
The unions are not reflecting reality. Instead of addressing legitimate fears with facts and evidence, they are using their political muscle to inflame those fears. The most vulnerable people in our country are the victims.
The negative effects of no school are the flip side of the many wonderful things teachers achieve when they are in school. But now the educational system is powerfully influenced by organizations that don’t seem to believe in critical thinking, adjusting beliefs according to the evidence, or combating fear with science.
God help us.
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