That Republicans want to endlessly relitigate the decisions made in 2020 and 2021 about in-person schooling is not surprising—they think it’s a culture war issue to their advantage. But it’s not just Republicans. There’s a breed of centrist pundits and economists who argue, often targeting teachers and their unions as well as Democratic politicians, that schools could and should have been open all along, and that this would have prevented disruption and what they call “learning loss.”
First off, the testing data that many of the schools-open-at-all-costs crowd claim show remote schooling was devastating to learning … doesn’t necessarily show that.
Beyond that, there was a pandemic. More than 200,000 kids have lost parents or caregivers to COVID, and the loss and trauma goes beyond that:
The furor over test scores is misplaced in so many ways. But while misplaced obsession with standardized test scores is its own phenomenon in U.S. policy discourse (and, as a reminder, it’s pretty much always the case that standardized test scores are highly correlated with families’ socioeconomic status), it’s also being used to make that argument that schools should have been in person all along, as if test scores are the only thing that matters.
In an important Twitter thread, Will Stancil describes the “completely insane myth, now basically accepted as truth in a lot of elite media circles, that the 2020-21 school year could have been normal and undisrupted.” Stancil concludes with this:
What’s he talking about? He offers reminders of what that 2020-2021 school year was like: a substantial amount of it before anyone had been vaccinated and a large majority of it before everyone had the opportunity. Fears for not just kids and teachers but the family members they might bring the virus home to after spending their days in classrooms that were and are often overcrowded and inadequately ventilated.
An uninterrupted school year was simply never an option given the scale of the pandemic and the failed U.S. policy response. In addition to the lack of vaccines earlier on, effective treatments weren’t available early in the year, so a COVID-19 diagnosis was more or less a matter of fate. Political leaders were unwilling to keep bars and restaurants closed in the name of being able to safely open schools. Ventilation remained a low priority on a national level, and schools with lots of low-income students—the same students whose families were already being hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic—were less likely to have adequate air exchange.
As during the omicron surge of late 2021 and early 2022, which came at a time when schools were just about universally open in person, schools struggled to maintain safe staffing levels during the surge of late 2020 and early 2021. Littleton Public Schools in Colorado shifted to remote learning, because “keeping enough staff in schools for supervision is becoming a real concern. It is especially difficult, and impossible on some days, to have enough licensed teachers in classrooms delivering quality instruction.” A Rhode Island school superintendent said, “Now you have students in the building and not enough adults to cover for the adults that are home for various reasons.”
Those were schools that were trying to stay open in person and they could not! The same thing happened again a year later during omicron. Yet this has been memory-holed because it doesn’t fit the narrative that teachers and their unions and Democratic elected officials forced schools to remain closed despite the costs to students’ standardized test scores.
When schools did reopen more fully in person, a lot of families voted with their feet, with high absentee rates in many areas. In January 2021, Chicago tried to push students back into schools. Just 19% attended in the first week of that effort, and that wasn’t the only place. There were huge racial divides in people’s willingness to send their kids to school in person, divides that showed up in polling and attendance alike. “In New York City, about 12,000 more white children have returned to classrooms than Black students, though Black children make up a larger share of the overall district,” The New York Times reported in February 2021. “In Oakland, Calif., just about a third of Black parents said they would consider in-person learning, compared with more than half of white families. And Black families in Washington, Nashville, Dallas and other districts also indicated they would keep their children learning at home at higher rates than white families.”
Many of the calls from white pundits and economists for full in-person school were made in the name of racial equity, with complete disregard for what Black families were saying they wanted. Another inconvenient fact that these affluent white people who were relatively protected from the worst of the pandemic do not want us thinking about is that kids did die. Not in the gaudy numbers of adults—but too many.
There were so many reasons for caution about in-person school in 2020-2021. We must not forget them. And we must not allow the pandemic’s many disruptions and traumas in children’s lives to be erased in an effort to portray in-person versus remote schooling as the single factor harming them.