Though Covid-related restrictions are easing across the country, fewer than half of America’s students are back in school full-time, according to Burbio, a website tracking school reopenings. A look at the national map shows that the most populous state, California, is also the most locked down, while the third-most populous, Florida, is almost completely back to normal. In October 2020, Brown University reported that politics and teachers’ union strength best explain how school boards approached reopening. In a September 2020 study, researchers Corey DeAngelis and Christos Makridis found that school districts in places with strong teachers’ unions were much less likely to offer full-time, in-person instruction in the fall.
In the early days of the lockdowns, medical experts were mixed on reopening schools, but a solid consensus now exists in favor of doing so. Last month, the CDC urged the nation’s elementary and secondary schools to admit students for in-person instruction as soon as possible. Around the same time, the New York Times “asked 175 pediatric disease experts if it was safe enough to open school.” The experts, mostly pediatricians focusing on public health, “largely agreed that it was safe enough for schools to be open to elementary students for full-time and in-person instruction now. Some said that this was true even in communities where Covid-19 infections were widespread, as long as basic safety measures were taken.” Reopening doesn’t lead to increased cases in a community, and closing classrooms “should be a last resort,” according to a March 11 analysis of more than 130 studies by AEI’s John Bailey.
The science is also clear that remote learning has been a disaster for children. A study by FAIR Health, a company that “possesses the nation’s largest collection of private healthcare claims data,” reveals that young people are suffering profoundly. Comparing August 2019 with August 2020 reveals an almost 334 percent increase in intentional self-harm claims in the Northeast for 13- to 18-year-olds. Drug overdoses more than doubled from April 2019 to April 2020 for the same age cohort. From spring 2020 to November 2020, obsessive-compulsive disorder and tic disorders increased for six- to 12-year-olds.
Additionally, mental-health problems account for a growing proportion of children’s visits to hospital emergency rooms. In November, the CDC noted that from March 2020 to October 2020 such visits increased 31 percent for 12- to 17-year-olds and 24 percent for children ages five to 11, compared with the same period in 2019.
Moreover, not all health problems are temporary. Keeping kids away from school will shorten their lifespans, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Beyond the health consequences, school closures also have serious economic ramifications. In September 2020, economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann found that accrued lockdown-related learning losses will amount to $14.2 trillion in economic terms. These losses have grown in the ensuing six months.
At last, many liberals in government and the mainstream media are now joining the conservative chorus calling for an end to school closures. Veteran New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a self-described progressive, is demanding that schools reopen now. In an opinion piece in late February, he blamed “Democratic governors and mayors who too often let schools stay closed even as bars opened.” He also stressed that these leaders 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.”
Chicago’s progressive Democratic mayor Lori Lightfoot has been butting heads with the Chicago Teachers Union over school reopenings. In a recent interview, she suggested that the obstinacy of the union relates to its aspiration to become “something akin to a political party,” and that, “ultimately, they’d like to take over not only Chicago Public Schools, but take over running the city government.”
In San Francisco, where unicorns outnumber Republicans, the city sued the school district over its refusal to reopen. The lawsuit, filed in February, claims that the “number of suicidal children in San Francisco has hit a record high and health experts say it is clear that keeping public schools closed ‘is catalyzing a mental health crisis among school-aged children.’”
Teachers’ unions insist that more cash is needed to reopen schools—for masks, updated ventilation systems, and other Covid-related adjustments. But most private schools have been operating safely already without the benefit of budget windfalls. As policy analyst Inez Stepman writes, only 5 percent of private schools across the country started all-virtual this fall, and they’ve done it with fewer resources: “Not only is average private school tuition substantially lower than average public school per-pupil funding (about $11,000 vs. public schools’ $14,000), they’ve received only a tiny fraction of the federal and state aid that has been available to public schools.” Money is not the issue; California spends far more per student than Florida, yet Florida is wide open, and California is not.
Parents of all political stripes have reached the end of their rope. Open Schools California and Reopen California Schools have thousands of members statewide. They have called for campuses to reopen, more transparency from school districts, and a seat at the table to discuss reopening plans. Philadelphia-area parents are so frustrated with remote learning that they’re running for office, suing, relocating, or retreating to private schools.
Public schools in 33 states have lost 500,000 students in a one-year period, according to an Associated Press-Chalkbeat analysis in December. Data released in February show that California K-12 public school enrollments have dropped by a record 155,000 students. Nationally, millions have withdrawn from public schools.
It’s no surprise that private schools are picking up the slack. A survey of 160 independent schools found that “121 are currently open full time, for face-to-face learning. The remaining 39 are on some sort of hybrid schedule.” Education Week disclosed in November that the number of homeschooled children nationwide has more than tripled, from 3 percent to 10 percent, and it may be even higher now.
Some parents with financial means have enrolled their children in private schools or formed pandemic pods, but most can’t take advantage of these options. The good news: legislatures across the country have begun taking steps to empower parents.
The Educational Freedom Institute reports that 29 states have active legislation devoted to funding students instead of school systems. While red states with weaker teachers’ unions are over-represented on the list, blue states are present, too. Massachusetts, Oregon, Minnesota, Maryland, and Washington all have Educational Savings Account legislation in the hopper, and Connecticut lawmakers are considering a tax-credit scholarship proposal.
The teachers’ union faithful are attempting to stem the rising tide in favor of school choice. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the Oregon Education Association successfully lobbied to make it illegal for families to switch to virtual charter schools. Here in California, the heavily union-funded state legislature passed Senate Bill 98 in late June. The trailer bill effectively put a moratorium on new charter school enrollments by capping per-student state funding to last year’s funding levels. Had the legislators not done that, charter school enrollments would undoubtedly be surging now.
In a recent survey, Beck Research reported across-the-board support for school-choice policies. Released in January, the Democratic polling outfit found that 65 percent of K-12 parents back school choice. African-Americans (74 percent) and Latinos (71 percent), groups that stand to gain the most from choice, are staunch supporters.
School choice is on the rise today because the teachers’ unions, along with their allies in legislatures and educational bureaucracies, have made a mess of things. Finally, however, some states are taking steps in the right direction. It’s about time.
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