“Ben! Come here, sweetheart.” Ben runs into his bedroom and throws himself on his bed. His mother follows him. His father is shaving and getting ready for work in the other bathroom. “Ben. It’s time to brush your teeth. I’ve got your backpack ready…” “No!” he howls, and begins to cry more loudly, the tears interspersed with yells and kicks. His mother calls for his dad. Together they alternately try to soothe him and move him to the bathroom to brush his teeth, and then to the door to get in the car.
The COVID school closures are gone for now, but the effects on Ben and other children persist. A teenage girl’s sports dreams were dashed. A seven-year-old boy needs opportunities to interact with other children because he’s not used to socializing. A 15-year-old’s school is still closed, and he sits at home.
These outcomes were not chosen by world health experts or by the United States CDC. The local and regional educational authorities who made or negotiated decisions about the schools under their jurisdiction routinely pointed to CDC guidelines as their source of guidance. Yet the CDC itself did not recommend school closures after the summer of 2020. Their reopening guidance was released in July. Media, local authorities, state governments, and other official outlets impressed upon the public the risks of COVID-19. But although CDC guidance warning of the serious consequences of school closures was available, evidence of reports from that time is hard to find. The media reported on guidance for reopening in February 2021—and incorrectly stated that the guidance was the first of its kind.
Throughout the first year of the pandemic, child development experts and parents shared their concerns with each other and the public, but they were often ignored. That “the kids would be all right” was unlikely when their lives changed overnight in March 2020. As Vann R. Newkirk II observed, the disruption from lockdowns, the economic slowdown, and the spike in unemployment would likely affect poor children the most: “Child neglect and abuse tend to track with greater traumatic events, economic instability, and stress.” The already available evidence of suffering caused by disruptions and closings, he noted, was drowned out by coverage of COVID deaths.
Certainly, the risk-benefit analysis of school closures for these lower income students was part of the concern. A crucial factor in decision making was the risks of the disease to students in low-income groups. For many reasons, these children were already at higher risk of morbidity and mortality. In addition, many of their parents were in high-risk fields, more likely to bring the virus home. Essential workers did in fact die at higher rates. In addition, lower income parents were likely unable to send children to private school, homeschool them, or even help their children navigate remote learning well, since they often were working. School closures could protect vulnerable homeless students, who were at higher risk of infection. And if schools opened to most children while retaining remote options for those at highest risk, teachers, who were already facing severe challenges, would be even more heavily burdened by multiple lesson plans.
Decision making that can lead to loss of life is extremely difficult. Educational authorities were balancing the risks and benefits of educational options for their students and staff. Similarly, it was difficult for parents to assess the risks and benefits of a return to school as various options proliferated in the fall of 2020. Even if parents had known that the CDC expressed great concern about remote education, they still had the responsibility to decide what was best. Parents with vulnerable children faced even more difficult decisions. As the parent of a child with lung disease asked: “Is a living child superior to an educationally stunted child? Emotionally? How do you draw the line?”
Catherine (all names changed for privacy) had two boys who were in preschool at the start of lockdown. She stated, “We were constantly told ‘one more remote week’ or ‘remote until [some date],’ and then we would get to that date and find out it was another few weeks. We had a period of literally taking it a day or week at a time to be hybrid when Omicron was rampant.” The benefit was not getting COVID. But the costs were high. Her son could not get the attention and instruction he needed. He was disconnected from his peer community. And although he was bright enough to compensate for his educational losses, he still needs more time with other children to get his feet underneath him developmentally. Remote instruction was a disaster for this family with working parents: “For myself and my husband, the pressure to juggle our jobs and facilitate virtual instruction was unbearable—mainly in 2020-2021 when it was months on end. Miserable doesn’t do it justice. It was torture.”
In some districts, the experience of remote instruction was more positive, and there was a short gap in educational instruction. Tracy from Michigan said her small, tight-knit community’s school district stepped up to the plate with quick implementation of remote instruction. She was home with her two boys who were four and nine when the lockdowns started. Their family experienced many benefits, including more family time and the ability to travel and camp together, as the boys could take along their tablets and do work wherever they were. Tracy observed, “My boys were both very self-driven with their work and maintained social relationships through online gaming and outdoor play dates.” Tracy’s older son got relief from the bullying he had experienced at school. Their family had concerns about COVID-19 that were addressed by remote and hybrid instruction, so the experience for them was positive.
Niki from New Mexico had older children, a daughter who was a junior at lockdown and a son who was in college. According to Niki, remote instruction especially in spring 2020 was “something of a joke,” and her daughter Kayla had to learn to teach herself, organize her plan and study alone. That was beneficial long-term, but Niki also observed that Kayla was likely an exception because of her sturdy will. When school did re-open to in-person instruction, Kayla returned because she had not received the opportunities she needed during remote instruction to ask questions. Also, Kayla was planning to play tennis at college. As a junior, she needed lots of play and the opportunity for college coaches to see her abilities. She was #1 on her tennis team but those opportunities ended in March 2020 after two games.
Niki’s son was a sophomore music major in college during the 2020-2021 school year. That experience she also described as a joke, as there were no performances. She observed that their family’s educational choices were nullified during the school lockdowns: “The main reason we opted to send our kids to public school was for the socialization and the ability to deal with their peers for the rest of their lives … During COVID the socialization was sparse. Music and sports were important to our family; public school allowed all of them to participate. COVID took that away from them.”
Tara’s son Ben, who began preschool in the fall of 2020 at age four, had difficulty handling the disruption of his routine because of anxiety. A hybrid model of education began mid-winter. After spring break, the smaller classes of 15 students he had been used to were combined. His teacher was unable to provide the reassurance he needed. His anxiety due to his circumstances was so high that he missed the last six weeks of pre-school. He fought being secured in his car seat for the ride to school, and no remote instruction was available at that time. During the winter of 2022, unpredictable closures began again, setting off Ben’s anxiety. Hour-long meltdowns and distress to the entire family ensued.
Experiences like these were incredibly difficult for parents trying to navigate the new demands and for children who were growing up during the uncertainty and disruptions of the era of COVID. For some families, remote learning worked well. However, for many children, especially those with previous learning, mental health, or developmental issues, and those from low-income families, what COVID closures demanded were too much.
Teachers and parents had concerns when starting the 2020-2021 school year, not least with whether their health would be safeguarded as they took care of other people. These concerns were valid and understandable given the ongoing coverage of disease risks and death rates. Yet studies addressing these concerns were available, albeit unpromoted. For example, research available as early as 2020 indicated that in educational settings student-to-student transmission was rare and students were less likely than teachers to transmit the virus. In Sweden, no increased rates of death were found when schools stayed open in 2020. As the BBC reported from England and Wales in January 2021, there was no evidence that teachers were dying at higher rates than other people. No data from the US addressing the death rate of teachers compared to those of people in other fields are readily available.
Studies from January 2021 determined that there were no increases in hospitalizations in communities when schools reopened, as long as there were fewer than 36 to 44 new COVID-19 county hospitalizations per 100,000 people per week. Data were inconclusive when reopening with rates above 44 new cases. Data from Michigan and Oregon led to the conclusion, “We find evidence that instructional modality does lead to increases in COVID spread in communities with moderate to high levels of pre-existing COVID cases, although the causal effect is small in magnitude (emphasis mine).” This study’s authors noted that with inconclusive data about hospitalization rates after reopening, it could still be advisable to re-open schools due to the negative effects of closings. But a year later in early 2022, many schools were still closing with renewed surges of the virus.
Smaller class sizes and smaller groups of employees to accommodate allowed private and parochial schools to reopen in the fall of 2020 while practicing masking and social distancing. Certainly, this would not have been as easy to do in public schools where there are significantly greater class sizes.
The reasons for the ongoing response of districts to COVID flare-ups after vaccines were available to teachers are unclear. In-person teaching could have been optional for those who were at risk of complications or who had regular contact with those at risk, but the remainder of the staff could have been retained with the provisions of vaccinations, masks, distancing, and better ventilation. An objection to returning to in-person instruction was that teachers were being told to meet even more needs than they had been before COVID. Concern exists about the roles teachers are expected to play versus the remuneration they receive. Even before the pandemic, voices stated that teachers deserved a more acceptable level of pay. Over the 26 years leading up to 2016, expenditures for education increased, but teacher salaries did not. As teachers were and are on the front lines during the pandemic, and to provide the support and respect they deserve, a significant increase in salary would be a minimal step. That teachers were expected to be all things to all children during a world crisis without sufficient support was not reasonable.
And the student outcomes? The available data show that, as predicted, minority students and those in schools with the highest poverty rates were most negatively affected by non-traditional instruction. The Louisville area schools remained closed longer than those in surrounding counties. Recent testing revealed that only one in three students in the district is reading on grade level and 30 percent are on grade level in math. Nationally, closures caused learning losses in math and reading that affected minority children more than others, ironically during a time when concern for minorities was at its greatest height in years. On top of academic losses, research showed that children who were out of school longer during the initial school closures in 2020 had significantly greater mental health declines than children who were back in school sooner.
Peggy Carr, head of the US National Center for Education Statistics, which administers standardized testing that compares student achievement across decades, stated that in the last two-and-a-half years, students of all ages experienced declines or stagnation in their test scores. In addition, while data showed a widening gap between higher performing and lower performing students even before the shutdowns, now, “Everyone is dropping. But the students at the bottom are dropping faster.” Students have suffered significant learning losses, and “academic recovery has been hampered by a host of issues, including a rise in student absenteeism, staffing challenges, and growing student mental health needs … educators are also contending with an uptick in behavioral challenges and classroom disruptions.”
Worldwide, parents and children faced school closures similar to those in the US. As of the summer of 2022 school instruction had still not resumed in some countries. McKinsey Consultancy data show that globally, children are eight full months behind. The long-term effects of these kinds of losses, especially for children in countries where they had many disadvantages previously, is likely to be significant. Schools in one-quarter of countries have no plans in place to enable students to catch up. In many countries where education was already rudimentary, students have dropped out entirely.
Remarkably, experts advised against all these long-term closures early in the pandemic. The Center for Global Development coalesced the recommendations from multiple world health organizations in mid-2020, including the World Health Organization, the World Bank, UNESCO, and the World Food Programme, and provided guidance for school reopening. In addition, in December 2020, UNICEF’s Robert Jenkins said that closing schools removed supports for students including food and safety as well as learning. UNICEF’s recommendation to open schools highlighted the importance of assisting children most at risk to get back to school, because they were most at risk of dropping out. In September 2020, the World Health Organization also issued guidance for school reopening, which highlighted the mitigation of COVID-19 transmission. They did not minimize the health risks from COVID, mentioning concern for students, teachers, and staff, and recommending local decision making based on each area’s level of transmission and risk assessment. Explicit and research-based details on what health and safety protocols could reasonably be used were provided. At the same time, they baldly stated, “The shutting down [of] educational facilities should only be considered when there are no other alternatives.”
And despite their typically conservative recommendations about COVID-19 health and safety, even the CDC promoted schools re-opening after only four months of the pandemic. Their July 2020 guidelines were ignored in most states. The CDC guidelines stated that the risks to children from COVID-19 were low whereas the risks of academic, social, and health losses due to school closures were high. “The harms attributed to closed schools on the social, emotional, and behavioral health, economic well-being, and academic achievement of children, in both the short- and long-term, are well-known and significant.”
In July 2022, the World Bank declared that pandemic-caused school closures are the worst educational crisis in a century. The world’s children had their education short-changed, their mental health damaged, and their lives thrown into tumult not just for months, but for years in some cases. There were benefits to closure in the early weeks and first months of the pandemic, but retaining remote education after global experts recommended otherwise has caused damage to children and their futures greater than many had imagined. The educational delays, increased mental health problems, social difficulties, behavioral problems, apathy, and lack of self-control students now experience are the painful costs. The message throughout repeated closures was that schools were returning to remote instruction again “out of an abundance of caution.” But the tragic irony is that by trying to protect the children, many schools inflicted grievous, possibly irreversible harm.
UNICEF states that the child’s best interests should be the lodestar of decision-making about them. If children’s wellbeing is the highest goal to which our world aspires, and in-person education is essential to that wellbeing, it is up to all of us to remedy these harms, as their consequences affect all of us. We must find ways to protect and respect our teachers and children that sustain and heal, instead of damaging. And with our experience with COVID as a guide, we must find a way to decide what we will do during the next inevitable pandemic.