Opinion

Was closing schools a mistake?

The sharpest opinions on the debate from around the web

The National Assessment of Educational Progress this week confirmed that American students fell behind in school when classrooms were shut down after the coronavirus crisis hit in 2020. The report, also known as the Nation's Report Card, showed that math and reading scores dropped significantly among fourth and eighth graders in nearly every state, across demographic groups. The decline in math scores was particularly jarring, with 26 percent of eighth graders scoring as proficient, compared to 34 percent in 2019. The New York Times called the decline "the most definitive indictment yet of the pandemic's impact on millions of schoolchildren."

The most vulnerable students fell farthest behind — many lacked the devices and high-speed internet connections needed to keep up in remote learning environments. "The results in [the] nation's report card are appalling and unacceptable," said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. "This is a moment of truth for education. How we respond to this will determine not only our recovery, but our nation's standing in the world." The federal government last year invested a record $123 billion, or about $2,400 per student, to help public school students catch up. Given the cost — to taxpayers and to students — was closing schools the right thing to do?

Democrats kept kids out of classrooms way too long

"This is not the first result or study showing that school closures caused massive learning loss — it is only the latest," says the Washington Examiner in an editorial. There is no question distance learning was the reason so many children fell behind. Just look at Catholic schools: Almost everywhere, they had opened full-time by fall 2020, "and on aggregate, the data show that they avoided the worst of the learning loss, avoiding declines in proficiency in fourth-grade math and eighth-grade reading." 

The lesson here is obvious: "Once it was clear that COVID was not a major threat to children, that they were neither likely to suffer severe symptoms nor to pass the disease to others, every schoolhouse in America should have reopened immediately for in-person instruction."

Remote learning wasn't the problem

"It turns out that all the bitter back-and-forth between red and blue states about how quickly to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic was nothing but political theater, as far as test scores are concerned," says Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. "Student performance suffered across the board." California's Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, opened schools more slowly that his Republican counterparts Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, who "made a big show of reopening their states' schools in the fall of 2020." But fourth and eighth graders' math proficiency dropped a point less in California than in Florida and Texas. 

"Political posturing might have mattered to governors who'd like to be president someday, but it made no difference to the millions of children in the nation's schools." Enough already. Instead of politicizing education, let's join forces and help students make up for two lost years. "Our students need to learn reading and math — and they're losing ground."

Admitting mistakes is the first step toward correcting them

Some people just can't admit when they're wrong, says Scott McCaffrey in the Northern Virginia Sun Gazette. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the face of the federal government's COVID response, with all its lockdowns, recently acknowledged that "excessive school lockdowns following COVID's arrival were, on balance, a bad thing for students." Fauci, of course, insists he didn't tell anyone to lock down schools. But if he can at least admit the strategy was unnecessary and harmful, can't local school districts concede that mistakes were made? "Will they ever admit a massive miscalculation in judgment"? Don't bet on it. We live in a world where everything is "hyper-politicized," even the education of our children.

Nobody should be boasting about these scores

Plenty of states that reopened early had dismal test results, says Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times, "including Kansas, Maine, and Idaho in reading and Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, and Idaho in math." Nobody has anything to "brag about." We should take an honest look at things that worked, like the efforts that some states, including California, "put into remedial programs during the pandemic and after it ebbed." And things that didn't: "There's little evidence that reforms such as charter schools are an answer; according to the NAEP report card, average scores in math, reading, and science are worse in charter schools than in conventional public schools, and the gap grows larger from fourth grade to eighth grade to 12th."

It didn't have to be this bad

It is indeed "hard to compare scores by the degree of lockdowns," says The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. But it's clear that keeping schools closed so long in so many places was a mistake, given children's limited COVID risk. "Sweden kept its schools open and avoided the catastrophic learning loss of the U.S." Some of our districts that struggled before the pandemic, like Detroit, had the toughest lockdowns, and "some of the worst learning loss." That's an argument for school choice. And don't forget that teachers' unions influenced many of the districts that closed classrooms. Politicians endorsed by American Federation of Teachers chief Randi Weingarten should be the first to face a backlash over these scores.

We should focus on how to fix this, not how it broke

The pandemic didn't create the problems with our education system, says the Los Angeles Times in an editorial. It just made them worse. It's "no surprise that educational achievement suffered after two chaotic years of school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic." The "most troubling" thing about the Nation's Report Card was that "low-performing students' scores declined at much higher rates than higher-performing students." Los Angeles kids eligible for the free lunch program, for example, were 35 points lower than other students. The gap was just 14 points in 2002.

The good news is that now "educators have the funds and the data to help guide them." The results "offer concrete proof that K-12 students need more focused attention and resources in the form of tutoring or extended instruction time, depending on specific circumstances." The math backsliding suggests "one-on-one tutoring or more teacher instruction" could help. Let's make good use of the lessons of the pandemic, and the money approved to help students catch up. "Our children's future depends on it."

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