“I believe that kids are resilient and kids will recover.” That’s what Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a February 2021 interview with Axios about the school shutdowns that roiled American lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two years later, those resilient kids are still waiting for their recovery. Schools are back full time and in person, but the kids aren’t all right.
This isn’t just my own experience as a father — take it from teachers around the Delaware Valley. As recently detailed in The Inquirer, behavioral and emotional problems abound, including “regressed behaviors usually present at younger ages, or in increased anxiety or withdrawal,” with plenty of interviews with teachers confirming the point.
» READ MORE: Are COVID-19 ‘lockdowns’ the right response to fight the growing pandemic?
Academically, the effects are also widespread. In 2022, the first “normal” year of testing since 2019, the results of state standardized exams showed a deep decline in learning. Scores were down in all subjects and with all age groups compared with pre-pandemic results.
It’s not just a problem in Philadelphia. Suburban school districts with high tax rates (like Cheltenham) or high revenue (like Central Bucks) also saw significant drops in test scores since 2019. It’s not even just government-run schools that had problems: Some charter schools are on the list of having the biggest declines, too.
The two problems — bad behavior and low scores — feed on each other. If the students’ environment is unruly, they will have a hard time learning. If they feel like they aren’t learning, they’re more likely to get bored and act out.
It’s a vicious cycle of decline that shows how our region’s educational establishment responded to COVID-19 in the wrong way, with the harm being concentrated on those students who were already at the greatest disadvantage.
It is tempting to give local officials the benefit of the doubt and say they were doing the best they could with the information that was available at the time. But that just isn’t true — many other schools, both in this country and others, went back to full-time, in-person learning far earlier than Philly-area public schools did, and with no ill effects. Even if they did not want to be the first to make that effort, they could have looked at those other districts and at parochial and private schools and copied what worked there.
They chose not to do this, and in doing so, they failed those who had no other options.
Emily Oster, who correctly opposed school closures during the pandemic, has said more recently that we should have a sort of amnesty on the question, rather than seeking to place blame. “Let’s acknowledge that we made complicated choices in the face of deep uncertainty,” she wrote, “and then try to work together to build back and move forward.”
That is a noble impulse, and one I would agree with — but only if those who were so grievously wrong first admit their error and then pledge to work for a system that will rely on data and reason in charting a course through any future emergency.
That has not happened, and I doubt that it ever will. Why? Because, like nearly every other issue in our national politics, the response to COVID became a culture war issue. Political tribalism means that extreme partisans will never back down. And sadly, many otherwise normal people these days take their cues from those online and cable news extremists.
The same political mania that animates anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists is also at the heart of the massive resistance to fully reopening schools by teachers’ unions and their political allies.
While schools in the European Union reopened as quickly as possible, here in the United States we saw the reverse. French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer summarized his government’s reasoning in September 2020: “We must be vigilant, but not forget the educational and social imperatives, nor deviate from our two objectives: improving the educational level of each child and reducing inequalities.”
» READ MORE: COVID is entering year 4. And I’m starting to hear … optimism?
Many American school districts chose the opposite course, and those inequalities grew larger. People who could afford to move their kids to private schools often did. Others took up homeschooling in record numbers. Still more moved to states that had reopened. Parents were signaling in every possible way that the system was failing them and their children.
But for most families, these options were out of reach. All that remained was to park their kids in front of a laptop and hope for the best. Children from single-parent households or homes where both parents had to work all day were left in an educational limbo. And we’re surprised kids didn’t learn? We’re shocked that their behavior and mental health suffered?
This was all predictable. Better alternative responses were happening all around the world. Schools here persisted with a bad call and the effects will continue for a generation. The class divide has been exacerbated by the same people who piously inveigh against it in every other debate but this one. The people who praise Europe’s big-government policies effortlessly flipped sides when France’s education policy began to resemble Florida’s.
Now America’s children are the collateral damage in this culture war battle. What is the answer? Every parent ought to have the choices that rich parents had. That need not mean privatizing all education, but children should have another option when a public school remains indifferent to falling scores and chaotic classrooms. Options in education should not be the exclusive preserve of the rich.
Public schools need to remember they serve the people and that their highest goal should be educating all students so they may have an equal shot. When they stray from that, they fail the students who can least afford it.