So now we know: Pandemic restrictions were detrimental to the project of educating our children. The Department of Education dropped the news last week that America’s distance learning experiment had lowered young children’s standardized test scores to levels not seen in two decades. Although scores declined in every demographic group, the losses were greatest among minorities and the poor.
The announcement was met with great and astonished clapping of hands, but no one should be surprised. Parents who opposed school closures knew what was coming. In her thoughtful new book, The Stolen Year, NPR’s Anya Kamenetz puts it this way: “The danger that children would be harmed by prolonged school closures in 2020 was clear from the start.”
Exactly. It harms not only learning but also social development and mental health. But as the rationale for the shutdown evolved from “two weeks to slow the spread” to a series of unattainable targets, those of us who raised questions about the strategy — including pointing out that the most disadvantaged children would suffer the most – found email inboxes flooded with angry letters from readers accusing us of ignoring science.
Yet the “science” was unclear from the start. In 2013, for example, the British Medical Journal published a review of more than 2,500 studies on the effect of school closures on the spread of influenza. The authors’ conclusion: “School closures appear to have the potential to reduce influenza transmission, but heterogeneity in the available data means that the optimal strategy (eg, ideal duration and timing of closures) remains unclear.”
A 2009 article in Health Affairs was frank about the limits of expert knowledge: “The current political scene lacks agreement on whether school closings would do more harm than good to the entire population and whether the consequences would outweigh the possible benefits for children and those around them.” communities for adults.’
It’s true that during the 1918 flu pandemic, closing schools early helped slow the rate of spread. But these suspensions usually last from two to eight weeks. (The late closing had little or no effect.)
Yet there was a public health “consensus” that schools should remain closed until… until… well, the goal seemed fluid.
Early in the pandemic, I heard a public health “expert” state on television that no measure is too extreme if it saves a life. Such a statement does not even constitute a serious argument, much less the teaching of an academic discipline. But the host treated the statement as scripture.
In his book, Kamenets complains that those who knew better did not speak up loud enough. A more realistic way of saying that those who knew better were silenced, even accused of spreading misinformation. But allowing only one side in a debate on an issue of public importance predictably leads to bad politics. And, in the parlance of the moment, it is also a threat to democracy, which thrives only on open dissent.
Perhaps the educational losses from distance learning would be justified if the practice could be proven to have saved children’s lives. But it can not. A study published in The Lancet in February confirmed that COVID-related deaths among school-aged children are remarkably low anywhere in the world. How low? Among 5-year-olds, to take just one example, the death rate from infection averages about 0.0024% — or 2 per 100,000. And that’s the death rate among the small number of young children who become infected to begin with.
It is true that, contrary to some reports early in the pandemic, young children can transmit the disease to adults, most likely due to our understandable tendency to cuddle our young children when they are sick. But at least among adults under 65 who live with children, the increased risk of hospitalization is small and there is no increase in the likelihood of a COVID-related death. (For those over 65 who live with young children, the data is more ambiguous.)
Here’s the British Medical Journal from 2021: “The emerging consensus is that schools do not appear to be amplifiers of transmission and that school cases simply reflect local community spread.”
In other words, even if we adults are selfish enough to punish our children to protect ourselves, closing schools seems to have protected us from almost nothing.
I’m not saying closures weren’t necessary; I’m saying we’ve never had a thoughtful public debate about how much and for how long. Kamenetz notes that the U.S. was “the only rich country that in no way prioritized its schools to reopen, losing more cumulative school days than any other”—a fact that should be ashamed of itself. In a series of vignettes, she describes the damage young people have suffered as a result of our wrong choices. If it’s important to blame someone, pick your favorite villain: Donald Trump, the CDC, the teachers unions, the news media, the reds or the blues. And when we’re done with this exercise, we can focus on what really matters: how to avoid making the same mistakes again.
Here’s my suggestion for a place to start: next time, let’s not be guided by fear of the unknown. Let’s discount the opinion of any expert who doesn’t cite any data. Most importantly, let’s agree that what is needed when we are unsure is a robust and open conversation. Maybe then we’ll find a way to get through the next pandemic without punishing our children.