After two years of fighting Covid, public officials are still debating how schools should respond to the virus. Despite ample data showing that virus transmission in schools has been generally weak and that cases among kids are often mild, governors in some states have been slow to ease restrictions on schools even as they lift them on society in general. This makes the U.S. an outlier. We’ve imposed tougher restrictions on schools, including closures, than have our peer countries. Meantime, state policy has varied widely, with some states offering much less in-person instruction to children than others.
The data can be framed in various ways, but one significant factor is that in places where teachers’ unions are the strongest, schools have been closed the longest. No wonder, then, that for the second straight year, public schools appear to be losing students and, according to a new survey, parents are increasingly embracing school choice.
Many of the world’s richest industrialized countries boast scientific and medical expertise that approaches that of the United States and have grappled with serious Covid outbreaks for as long as America has. Yet according to UNESCO’s latest data, virtually all have closed schools for far less time than the U.S. In France, where the first wave of the Omicron variant crested in December, schools have been closed for an average of 12 weeks throughout the two years of Covid. Spain has shuttered them for 15 weeks. Italy and Germany have been tougher, having closed schools for 38 weeks apiece. The U.K. sits in between those four countries, at 27 weeks. Our neighbor to the north, Canada—increasingly seen amid the truckers’ protests as endorsing among the most restrictive measures—tallied 41 weeks. American schools have lost a staggering 71 weeks of in-person instruction since Covid began.
Country-wide averages can be misleading, as state reactions to Covid have varied widely. A year ago, as vaccines were becoming widely available, an audit of school districts throughout the country discovered wide variations of in-person instruction. The audit gave states a score between one and 100, with one being the least amount of in-person instruction and 100 the most. The lowest states were Maryland (with a score of just 9.8), California (11.1), Oregon, and Washington. Illinois scored marginally higher, at 37.6, in the same range as states like New Jersey and Massachusetts. By contrast, Texas was almost completely back to in-person instruction, with a ranking of 90.8 on the in-person index. Florida came in at 99.9. In all, 15 states, mostly in the South and Central Plains, had returned to in-person instruction 80 percent or more of the time.
Asked about the vast differences, California governor Gavin Newsom said at the time that California’s school system was like no other and shouldn’t be judged against other states. Some parents demurred. As one distraught parent told the San Jose Mercury News, “It is unbelievable that despite all the evidence showing that school is safe for students and teachers with a few safety protocols, and hundreds of public health officials and physicians weighing in on the need to return children to classrooms for their mental and physical health, California finds itself almost last in the nation.”
The widespread introduction of vaccines allowed teachers and staff to get protected against the virus, easing some of controversy around school re-openings last spring. But the issue flared up again with the arrival of the Omicron variant. Though the variant tends to produce much milder cases, especially in those already vaccinated, school officials and politicians again found themselves under pressure to close schools this past winter. The number of school closings soared some tenfold as Omicron arrived, to more than 5,000 closings in early January, up from 499 in late November. Systems shut down for days or weeks across the country, led by Chicago, where teachers walked out for five days in January, refusing to teach in person. That was the third strike by the teachers in just over two years in the Windy City. The head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, endorsed vaccine mandates for school children and suggested that mask mandates for school kids stay in place until at least 80 percent of all kids in a school are vaccinated. The head of another teachers’ group, National Educators United, urged a two-week shutdown of schools nationally.
Even now, as Omicron recedes, governors in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and California have kept mask mandates for kids in place for the time being while already eliminating them in most other settings. The opposite approach can be seen in states such as Florida, Texas, and Utah, where kids have spent the most time in schools and governors have prohibited school districts from imposing mask mandates.
Once again, the distinctions by state are striking. Any map ranking the states by how much school their kids have attended during Covid, or by the severity of mandates for children, corresponds closely to the levels of public-sector unionization and bargaining power of teachers in a state. For instance, all ten states with the highest level of public-sector unionization (from Connecticut to Massachusetts) ranked in the bottom half of the country in terms of days with in-person instruction during the first year of the pandemic, while virtually every state with the lowest levels of public-sector unionization recorded among the most days of in-person school learning.
This isn’t hard to understand. Some states grant enormous leverage to unions by imposing onerous collective bargaining requirements on school districts. These states include California, Washington, Oregon, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois—all places where schools have been closed the most. States that impose the fewest requirements on school districts to negotiate—including Utah, Texas, Georgia and South Carolina—have been among those whose students have spent the most time attending school in person, and they are among the places dropping the final Covid restrictions fastest.
The long-term effect of the pandemic on public schools may turn out to be one of the most consequential byproducts of the last two years. In the 2020–21 school year, the number of students attending public schools dropped by 3 percent. The declines were even steeper in earlier grades, suggesting many parents of younger children are exploring other options. Something similar may be afoot this year. Compiling data from 600 districts that represent a cross-section of public schools, NPR recently found that a majority of districts are reporting a second straight year of declines, and that few districts regained the kids they had lost the previous year. Private-school enrollment, however, grew by as much as 6 percent over the last two years.
A recent survey of parents shows that families are looking for options. More than half of those surveyed said they had searched for a new school for their child during the past year. Some 18 percent moved their kids, and another 14 percent were considering a move. According to an earlier survey, that rate of changing schools is some 75 percent greater than pre-Covid. Parents’ first concern, the survey found, was simply finding a better school for their child. Covid disruptions were second.
School officials are starting to notice. Last week, the superintendent of schools for Washington State called for an end to mask mandates that have been in place since August. Perhaps not coincidentally, a report became public two days later showing that public school enrollment continues to wane in the state, even faster than projections. A December poll showed that 71 percent of state residents support school choice, and only 26 percent oppose it.
Is lasting change really on the horizon, though? In 14 states, officials have responded to these kinds of concerns by expanding school choice. But a map of those states would look similar to a map of places where teachers’ unions have little power already—highlighting Iowa, Indiana, and Georgia. This November, 36 governorships and more than 6,000 legislative seats will be up for grabs. Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin has pledged to add more charter schools. Given how volatile an issue Covid and schools has become, governors up for election in Democratic-controlled states may have to choose between the wishes of parents and the power of teachers’ unions.
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