Schools are likely to close in many places, despite Joe Biden’s paying lip service to the goal of keeping them open, says Reason magazine editor Matt Welch. “The president rightly points out that the federal government has” devoted “billions of dollars to make K-12 schools even safer than they already were. Yet many are about to close.”
It makes sense to keep schools open, given that “the risk of severe outcomes to kids from coronavirus infection is low, and the risks to kids from being out of school are high,” explained health professor Joseph Allen in the New York Times.
“We know a lot more today than we did back in March of 2020,” Biden pointed out at around the six-minute mark of his speech yesterday:
“For example, last year, we thought the only way to keep your children safe was to close our schools. Today we know more, and we have more resources to keep those schools open. You can get 5- to 11-year-olds vaccinated, a tool we didn’t have until last month. Today we don’t have to shut down schools because of a case of COVID-19. Now, if a student tests positive, other students can take the test, and stay in the classroom if they’re non-infected, rather than closing the whole school or having to quarantine. We can keep our K through 12 schools open, and that’s exactly what we should be doing.”
Biden returned to this theme at around minute 20 of his speech:
“Look, the science is clear, and overwhelming. We know how to keep our kids safe from COVID-19 in school. K through 12 schools should be open. And that safety is increased if schools require all adults who work in the schools to get vaccinated, and take the safety measures that the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has recommended, including masking. I got Congress to pass billions of dollars in school improvements—ventilation and social distancing. School should be safer than ever from COVID-19. And just Friday, the CDC issued test-to-stay guidelines….COVID-19 is scary, but the science is clear: Children are as safe in school as they are anyplace, assuming the appropriate precautions have been taken. And they’ve already been funded.”
But despite that $197 billion and counting in extra federal COVID funding over the past 21 months, an increasing number of public K-12 schools keep on closing, at least for temporary periods. Especially for “opportunistic, last-minute, teacher-friendly days off conjured up near weekends and federal holidays,” says Welch:
This weekend’s report at school-tracking web site Burbio shows “an increase in disruptions beginning the week of December 20th as well as in early January.” Here are some school closings:
“Prince George’s County, MD school district, one of the nation’s largest with over 200 schools, will be virtual from December 20th through January 14th. ‘Educators, administrators and support staff must be able to deliver in-person instruction and other activities in conditions that prioritize their own health, as well as the wellbeing of the school community,’ reads the release.
Hamtramck, MI public schools will be virtual for a week post-New Years. ‘Out of an abundance of caution, we’re implementing a week of virtual learning upon the break’s end,’ writes the Superintendent.
Dover Middle School, PA shifted to virtual learning December 17th. ‘In consultation with a Pennsylvania Department of Health epidemiologist, due to a drastic rise in COVID-19 cases and subsequent quarantining, the Dover Area Middle School will be shifting to virtual learning,’ reads the note.”
As Welch notes, “Democratic-controlled (and teachers union-influenced) states and cities have been the most closed (and most likely to include masking mandates); Republican-controlled polities have been more open and less masked. And private schools everywhere have been more open than their government-run counterparts. There is every reason to suspect that this pattern will reassert itself during the omicron surge. Blue states have more teacher (and sometimes even student) vaccine mandates, bigger labor shortages, and more scale-thumbing by unions. To say something facially absurd yet annoyingly true, the places that voted for Joe Biden will be the most likely to not deliver on the president’s aspiration that ‘K through 12 schools should be open.'”
A New Yorker article Monday by Jessica Winter describes the trends that are foreshadowing more school closures:
“Staffing shortages at some schools have compounded the problems faced by overtaxed teachers….[high school English teacher Alex] Driver said that things had been made worse by an agreement that the United Federation of Teachers, the labor union that represents most public-school teachers in New York, struck with the city in its negotiation of the vaccine mandate. The deal gave teachers who refused the vaccine up to a year to change their minds—meaning that principals can’t yet make permanent hires to replace them. ‘The U.F.T. used our bargaining power for anti-vaxxer teachers instead of for better testing and better safety standards,’ Driver said.
A D.O.E. spokesperson told me that ‘there are no widespread staffing shortages.’ Another D.O.E. spokesperson said via e-mail that the city’s supply of teachers and substitutes was comparable to what it was in previous school years. (The D.O.E. did not provide responses to more specific follow-up questions about staff vacancies and substitute numbers.) But multiple teachers and principals told me that these numbers don’t square with what they’re seeing on the ground. Jake Jacobs is an art teacher at a Bronx middle school that is missing five special-ed teachers, one science teacher, and one language teacher. ‘We have not had a single sub all year,’ he said. ‘The school puts in for subs every day, and nobody ever answers.’ A principal at a middle school in Brooklyn, whom I’ll call M., was down two teachers for part of the fall. ‘I had a spreadsheet of candidates who were vetted and interested in working in our schools, but people did not return our calls,’ she said. Like Jacobs, M. reported a total void in substitutes. ‘I don’t know who or where these subs are, but they’re not coming,’ she said.”
NPR recently wrote about how this school year failed to produce the enrollment bounce-back many expected after the 2020-21 coronavirus wipeout year. Instead:
“We compiled the latest headcount data directly from more than 600 districts in 23 states and Washington, D.C., including statewide data from Massachusetts, Georgia and Alabama. We found that very few districts, especially larger ones, have returned to pre-pandemic numbers. Most are now posting a second straight year of declines. This is particularly true in some of the nation’s largest systems:
New York City’s school enrollment dropped by about 38,000 students last school year and another 13,000 this year.
In Los Angeles, the student population declined by 17,000 students last school year, and nearly 9,000 this year.
In the Chicago public schools, enrollment dropped by 14,000 last year, and another 10,000 this year.”
Welch says “These big-city enrollment drops overlap significantly with big-city (and blue-state) population drops during the pandemic. The Census Bureau this week reported that Democrat-dominated California, New York, and Illinois led the country in overall population decline between July 1, 2020 and July 1, 2021 (with 367,000, 352,000, and 122,000 people, respectively), while Republican-run Florida, Texas, and Arizona were the biggest gainers (221,000, 170,000, and 93,000). In percentage terms, the loss-leader was D.C., also run by Democrats (-2.9 percent), followed by New York (-1.6 percent) and Illinois (-0.9 percent); the top gainers were, again, Republican-controlled: Idaho (+2.9 percent), Utah (+1.7 percent) and Montana (+1.7 percent).”
Allen, in his New York Times op-ed, pleads that “schools should never close.”
“We are coming up on two years of disrupted school,” he writes. “For those in the second grade, a life of closed schools, learning behind plexiglass and masks, learning to read without seeing their teachers’ mouths and no physical contact on the playground is all they’ve ever known. This is outrageous, dangerous and fear-based. The Omicron surge may make certain districts want to cling to these measures, but they shouldn’t.”
Welch says that Biden deserves credit for his “statements in favor of keeping schools open. But will his voters listen?”
Supporters of school closings claimed they were needed to protect people’s health. But by driving up obesity rates, school closings harmed kids’ health. Shutting schools actually increased coronavirus deaths, according to researchers at the University of Edinburgh. The Centers for Disease Control pointed out that there’s “little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to community transmission.”
Schools remained open in most European countries such as France. But in America, teachers unions successfully pushed to keep schools closed, resulting in enormous learning loss. Kids learned less when learning from home than they did when schools were open — especially black and Hispanic students, whose pass rates collapsed in states such as Virginia.
Politics, not students’ well-being, was behind school closures. Decisions about whether to close schools were driven mainly by teachers “union influence and politics, not safety,” reported Reason Magazine. Teachers unions repeatedly blocked school reopenings. Some used “sick-outs” to shut down schools or force school boards to delay school openings.