The Irreversible Consequences of School Closures
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 28: Students who are self-isolating stand behind the security fencing of theoir accommodation as they are interviewed by a television crew on September 28, 2020 in Manchester, England. Around 1,700 students across two student housing blocks were told to self-isolate after more than 100 students recently tested positive for Covid-19. The students were told to self-isolate for 14 days even if they were not experiencing symptoms. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Nearly a year into the pandemic, schools around the nation continue to conduct remote classes, rendering millions of our children prisoners in their own homes. As reopening dates continue to be pushed further and further into the future, the rising tensions between school districts and teachers’ unions have captured national attention.

As children continue to suffer as a consequence of school closures, many teacher-led demonstrations against re-openings have drawn outrage. In August, teachers in New York City rebuked Mayor De Blasio’s reopening plans by taking to the streets with fake coffins, body bags, and guillotines.

In December, Chicago Teachers Union vice president Sarah Cambers drew ire for posting photos of herself on an international vacation while simultaneously taking to her social media accounts — ironically named @sarah4justice — to claim school reopening was an endangerment to health.

Again in the spotlight is Chicago, where the teachers’ union posted a now viral interpretive dance video to their social media accounts late last month. A voice-over warns of the dangers of schools reopening as young and apparently able-bodied teachers gyrate as a form of “activism.” 

But the unrest in Chicago goes beyond bikini photos and feminist dance theory gone awry. On Monday, school reopenings were delayed once again. Although more than 5,000 teachers were already granted approval to work remotely due to underlying health conditions, the local union refused to make any concessions to the school district.

As a consequence of union agitation, 290,000 students in Chicago will still not be able to attend school in person. As students and their families continue to struggle as a result of school closures, many questions have been left unanswered. What health risk does in-person learning pose? What are the consequences of school closures? And, what does this mean for the future?

Risks of in-person learning

When schools began to lockdown in early 2020, COVID-19 posed many unknown risks. While the WHO reported a supposed 3.4 percent mortality rate, lockdowns appeared necessary for the protection of teachers, students, and their families alike. But the science has since evolved dramatically.

A recent report from CDC scientists analyzed the health risks of in-person learning. An investigation of 90,000 students and staff in North Carolina found that, while 773 cases of COVID-19 were acquired outside of school, only 32 transmissions occurred in classrooms. A look into Wisconsin schools showed lower instances of infection within the school system than the outside community at large.

The authors of the study unequivocally advocated for the reopening of schools, concluding that “the type of rapid spread that was frequent in congregate living facilities or high-density worksites has not been reported in education settings in schools.” Furthermore, the average American teacher is 42.5 years old and therefore likely not at risk for severe complications from COVID-19.

Similar outcomes have been found in studies abroad. In Sweden, where schools largely remained open throughout the pandemic, researchers found that in-person learning resulted in zero student deaths and only 19 hospitalizations for every 100,000 teachers. And, as public schools continue to lock down, many private schools in the same communities have reopened without any major health consequences.

Data from all corners of the globe point to one clear conclusion: the continued closure of schools is predicated on an unfounded fear. Furthermore, closures will have irreversible consequences.

Widening disparities

Most adults can attest to the difficulty of staying focused on a Zoom call — for a child, that attentional demand can be downright frustrating. In an April survey, three in four teachers reported that their students were less engaged as a result of remote learning, causing academic achievement to plummet.

While nearly all children struggle with remote learning, school closures have only widened financial, social, and academic disparities. This is especially true among students with learning disabilities, for whom staring at a screen for hours a day can be nearly impossible. 20 percent of parents with special needs children report their child did not receive the support they require.

The discrepancy in academic performance has also worsened along socio-economic lines. While 84 percent of teachers in affluent communities report their students are participating daily in remote learning, only 51 percent in high-poverty schools say the same. Concerns among low income parents reflect this sentiment; three in four are worried about their children falling behind in school.

The pandemic has brought on a slew of struggles for low income students and their families — among them internet accessibility, suitable workspaces, childcare for working families, and even lack of access to school meals. All the while, higher income students often have the benefit of greater resources and parental support. Similarly, many private schools have operated normally while public schools in the same neighborhoods have shut their doors.

In short, remote learning has defied the goal of public education: to serve as an equalizing opportunity that celebrates academic merit. While families with greater resources may be better equipped to fill in the gaps left by a year of remote learning, formative lessons and fundaments of reading and arithmetic have effectively been lost for many students.

Physical and mental well-being

School closures also pose a risk to the physical health of students. Many parents and doctors have expressed concern that keeping children trapped in a protective bubble will deprive them of the germ exposure necessary for the development of healthy immune systems. Students are also unable to access dental and physical screenings provided by school districts.

Children in abusive households face among the most disturbing threats to physical health of all. Teachers tend to be the first to pick up on instances of child abuse, and without face-to-face interaction, detection of abuse has sharply declined. This year, the number of child abuse victims requiring hospitalization has increased, according to the CDC.

Remote learning has left children without daily routines, social interaction, or any real sense of freedom, and as a result, a mental health crisis appears poised to ravage our youth.

According to the CDC, pediatric visitations for mental health concerns are up 24 percent for 5 to 11 year olds and 31 percent for 12 to 17 year olds. More of these children are also being admitted to in-patient care. Another CDC report revealed that a staggering one in four young adults exhibited suicidal tendencies during lockdowns.

Last week, a New York Times exposé shed light on the example of Clark County, Nevada, where 18 students, some as young as nine years old, committed suicide between March and December, double the rate of the entire previous year. One child left behind a chilling note: “I have nothing to look forward to.”

In response, the school district implemented a warning system that monitors students’ web activity for signs of suicidal thoughts — it has yielded 3,100 alerts. While students died in isolation, casinos in Las Vegas — the largest city in Clark County — were allowed to remain open just down the road from shuttered schools.

Similar tragedies are occurring around the nation. In December, for example, an elementary school student shot himself in front of his classmates during a Zoom class. The problem is also international; an estimated 1.6 billion students have been affected by school closures. As a result, the share of children below minimum skill proficiency is projected to increase by 25 percent.

Longterm ramifications

The longterm effects of school closures remain to be seen, though researchers have painted a grim picture. A recent study projects a 3.8 percent increase in students without high school degrees and 2.7 percent fewer with college degrees.

Closures are forecasted to also have an impact on future wages. For every six months of school closure, American students are predicted to lose an average of 1 percent earnings over their lifetime. The consequences on the global stage are even more dire, where wage losses due to school closures are projected to reach $10 trillion — amounting to one tenth of the global GDP.

Beyond just academic instruction, school also instils habits that foster longer, healthier lives — among them socialization, self-care, organizational skills, and even sexual education. Loss of these learning opportunities has tangible ramifications. A study from the American Medical Association estimates missed schooling in 2020 could result in an aggregated 13.8 million “life years” lost for children in the United States. 

The study confirms that school closures — and their consequences — have been suffered in vain: “This estimated loss in life expectancy was likely to be greater than would have been observed if leaving primary schools open had led to an expansion of the first wave of the pandemic.” In short, we’ve failed our children for a false sense of safety — and, at the behest of teachers’ unions, we continue to do so.

Corruption and opportunity for change

Amidst the mounting evidence, the continued agitation for remote learning from teachers’ unions can seem unfathomable. While the majority of teachers support school closure, others insist the union does not represent their desperation to resume in-person instruction. In fact, some teachers report alleged coercion to join unions, a phenomenon dubbed “compulsory unionism.”

While some teachers have fearlessly stood down unions, many politicians have failed to do the same, perhaps due to competing allegiances. The list of Democrats who supported school closures while simultaneously taking donations from teachers’ unions is extensive and includes White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain. 

In 2020 alone, teachers’ unions donated $43.7 million to political funds, 98 percent of which went to Democrats. Rather than advocating for an often-overlooked profession, teachers’ unions are instead morphing into a powerful political entity moving contrary to the wishes of teachers and the best interests of students. 

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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