School Closures in 2020/21: What really happened?
Setting the Record Straight: An analysis of School Closures in 2020/21
- Data Source: Burbio.com
It’s no secret that political polarization within our country has affected policy response to the pandemic. The first year of the pandemic was smack in the middle of an election, where every single issue facing the nation was portrayed as a this vs. that, us vs. them, the left vs the right. Public health messaging was appropriated by politicians for the purpose of making political promises. Politicians on both sides made bold claims1 about their policies effects on the pandemic, and the bureaucracies within our Federal and State governments were often left to either pickup the pieces, or left carrying the flag of the “official messaging” of executive administrations by closely aligning their policies with political goals. The appropriate role of public health: a-political, advisory, driven by research and data, was almost completely dismantled. Who suffered the most from this petty political polarization? The children.
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So here we are in 2022, and the prevailing public & expert opinion2 is that virtual school was a failed experiment3, that open, in-person school is unequivocally the most effective mode of learning (shocker). Socioeconomically disadvantaged and minority children were affected disproportionately by virtual learning. The data are clear on that issue, despite the attempt at some to misrepresent the issue and inject dubious claims of nefarious racial motivations within the debate.
The most tragic part of school closures was that the science and research on the risks of open schools has corroborated on these few simple facts: that schools were not responsible for community spread4, that schools could operate in-person safely even during periods of high community spread5, and that burdensome mitigations actually had little to no significant effect upon transmission within schools6.
Now that we have higher certainty about schools minimal effects on spread, the reality of the criticality of in-person learning to provide the best outcomes7, and the disastrous consequences that closing them caused8, we should be asking ourselves: why? While most of Europe kept their schools open9 (even during times of severe restrictions on adult social life), the US continued with school closures throughout about half the country.
Why did we allow schools to close? Answering this question is critical to preventing collateral damage to our children, and to learn how we balance competing harms when enacting policy. We must face the evidence, learn from our mistakes, and do better for our children’s sake.
If it wasn’t already abundantly clear that politics explains school closures more than any other factor, this paper10 from Brown University explores the evidence and sums up their research findings on the factors influencing school closures:
“Contrary to the conventional understanding of school districts as localized and non-partisan actors, we find evidence that politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making. Mass partisanship and teacher union strength best explain how school boards approached reopening”
Compare the chart on the left, which shows cumulative in-person learning by state (more red= more open schools, more blue = less open schools) with the election map on the right. The correlation is unmistakable.