Flags are flying at half-staff across the United States to commemorate the half-million American lives lost to the coronavirus.
But there’s another tragedy we haven’t adequately confronted: Millions of American schoolchildren will soon have missed a year of in-person instruction, and we may have inflicted permanent damage on some of them, and on our country.
The reluctance of many Republicans to wear masks and practice social distancing is one reason so many Americans are dead. But the educational losses are disproportionately the fault of Democratic governors and mayors who too often let schools stay closed even as bars opened.
The blunt fact is that it is Democrats — including those who run the West Coast, from California through Oregon to Washington State — who have presided over one of the worst blows to the education of disadvantaged Americans in history. The result: more dropouts, less literacy and numeracy, widening race gaps, and long-term harm to some of our most marginalized youth.
The San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank this month estimated that educational disruptions during this pandemic may increase the number of high school dropouts over 10 years by 3.8 percent, while also reducing the number of college-educated workers in the labor force. This will shrink the incomes of Americans for 70 years, until the last of today’s students leave the work force, the bank said.
What that doesn’t capture is the human toll. Rich kids going to private schools glide on through life mostly unaffected, while low-income children often don’t even have internet to attend Zoom classes. I’m writing this in rural Oregon, where some homes have neither internet nor cellphone service.
I wrote recently about my old buddy Mike Stepp, who dropped out of high school, couldn’t get a good job, self-medicated with alcohol and meth, and recently died homeless. I fear that our educational failures during this pandemic will produce countless more tragedies like Mike’s.
Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit focused on underserved students, estimates that as many as three million children in the United States have missed all formal education, in-person or virtual, for almost a year.
“We have to acknowledge that there is a large percentage of kids that have ‘disappeared’ — students who have never logged in, or logged in and never fully engaged,” said Melissa Connelly, chief executive of OneGoal, a nonprofit that does outstanding work with low-income high school students.
As of Jan. 29, almost 10 percent fewer high school seniors had submitted FAFSA financial aid forms, a sign that some are losing the chance to attend college.
Closures also exacerbate racial inequity. According to McKinsey & Company, fifth graders in schools with mostly students of color mastered only 37 percent of the math that usually would be expected.
Yes, it’s hard to open schools during a pandemic. But private schools mostly managed to, and that’s true not only of rich boarding schools but also of strapped Catholic schools. As a nation, we fought to keep restaurants and malls open — but we didn’t make schools a similar priority, so needy children were left behind.
“The evidence on remote learning suggests that despite the best efforts of teachers it doesn’t work for a large share of kids,” said Emily Oster, a Brown University economist who has studied the issue. “I think we’ve deprioritized children in a way that will do long-term damage.”
What are the risks of opening schools? We now have a great deal of data in the United States and abroad comparing areas that reopened schools versus those that kept them closed. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found, “in-person learning in schools has not been associated with substantial community transmission.” The British Medical Journal this week put it this way in an editorial: “Closing schools is not evidence based and harms children.”
Most evidence aligns with a careful Tulane study that found that in most of the United States, school openings do not increase coronavirus hospitalizations. And teachers generally don’t seem at greater risk than people in other occupations. While it’s crucial to improve ventilation, increase testing and maintain adequate spacing, those steps aren’t always possible — and failure to meet every benchmark shouldn’t be an automatic bar to in-person schooling.
Teachers in some places are suggesting that in-school instruction shouldn’t resume even after they are vaccinated, not until students are vaccinated as well. That’s an abdication of responsibility to America’s children.
Many Democrats seemed to become more suspicious of in-person schooling last summer when President Donald Trump called for it. We shouldn’t let ourselves be driven by ideology rather than science, and that wasn’t universal: Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island, a Democrat, worked hard to open schools, and kids there are better off because she did.
Maybe new variants of the virus will spread and require school closures — we should be relentlessly empirical — but that should be a last resort. Yes, there’s uncertainty. Sure, there are trade-offs. But serving kids in schools should be a higher priority than serving drinks in bars, and we should plan on summer school so lagging children can catch up.
For almost a year now, we as a country have failed millions of America’s most vulnerable children; we must right this wrong.