The U.S. failed to evaluate the harm of lost learning versus the coronavirus when it closed schools during the pandemic and fell behind Europe in getting children back into the classroom even as leaders tried to reopen bars and gyms, experts told House investigators Tuesday.
Dr. Tracy Beth Hoeg, a consultant epidemiologist and practicing doctor in California, said the result was the “worst public health decision we will see in our lifetimes” as children fall behind in academic achievement, school absenteeism rises and fewer students seek higher education.
“There was an implicit understanding across Europe that children must have a safe, happy environment to return to before parents can return to work. Where was that sentiment in the U.S.?” she told the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic. “We have known from the spring of 2020 from international data that we should keep schools open, as Europe did, yet we chose to risk our children in an attempt to protect adults.”
Witnesses said school leaders knew early on that COVID-19 deaths overwhelmingly involved the elderly and the virus posed a low risk to young people, but they feared the political consequences from powerful labor unions who put instructors’ demands first.
“Let us be honest: Schools stayed closed primarily because the teachers unions in our country have enormous political power and parents do not,” said Virginia Gentles, director of the Education Freedom Center at the Independent Women’s Forum.
Some schools opened much sooner than others in late 2020, resulting in a balkanized environment that put some children back in the classroom after a few months while others waited more than a year.
In the fall of 2020, 43% of traditional public schools and 92% of Catholic schools welcomed children back to classrooms, Ms. Gentles said.
“As a result, students in Catholic schools are about a year and a half grade levels ahead of public school students in fourth-grade reading and two grade levels ahead in eighth-grade reading,” she said.
The switch from classroom instruction to remote learning was one of the most notable societal shocks of the pandemic and generated a political backlash still resonating in key electoral races. Students tried to keep up with reading, writing and arithmetic from their computers while parents juggled their work lives and oversight of their children’s at-home instruction.
President Trump asked Americans to stay home for a while in the spring of 2020 but pushed schools to reopen later in the year. Labor unions and Democratic state leaders resisted because of fear of the virus and staffing problems, including the inability to find substitute teachers.
In 2021, critics said President Biden was too cozy with teachers unions and too quick to seek their input on reopening schools. The president took a harder line around the time of a Chicago teacher walkout in January 2022 and said in-person instruction could be safe despite the circulation of the omicron variant.
Subcommittee Chairman Brad Wenstrup, Ohio Republican, said he convened the hearing to understand the fallout from school shutdowns.
“We need to make every effort to not let this happen again for the sake of our future,” Mr. Wenstrup said. “The baseline should have been to keep schools open and ask how that gets done.”
He said the effort “isn’t a question of right or left.”
Yet the hearing turned to political finger-pointing at times. Democrats faulted Mr. Trump’s early response while crediting Mr. Biden’s pandemic relief plans as the driver of successful reopenings.
“From the beginning, President Trump and his administration did not act with the urgency needed to reduce transmission,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz, California Democrat.
Donna Mazyck, a registered nurse and executive director of the National Association of School Nurses, said schools lacked resources during the worst of the pandemic.
“PPE was in short supply,” she told the subcommittee.
Mr. Ruiz said Americans should ramp up defenses against pathogens to ensure schools can remain open and resilient in the face of public health threats.
Experts called to Capitol Hill by House Republicans insisted they did not want to minimize the threat of the virus, but they said adults seemed to prioritize their own lives over children’s well-being while the virus swept across the nation.
Dr. Hoeg, a Danish American, said Scandinavian countries reopened schools in early 2020 and “demonstrated constant motivation to keep them open.”
“These countries prioritized children’s well-being above adults’ by opening schools before reopening the rest of the society,” she said in prepared testimony. “In contrast, much of the United States prioritized adult well-being over children’s, reopening bars, restaurants and beauty salons, gyms, etc., before schools.”
David Zweig, an author and investigative journalist, cited Harvard University research that found remote instruction was more prevalent among Black and Hispanic students and was “the primary driver of widening achievement gaps.”
Witnesses said school closures were counterproductive in terms of epidemiology. Children started to interact with children from multiple locales instead of their typical cohorts at school, heightening the risk of viral spread.
They said there was no evidence in Europe and other places that reopening schools resulted in greater transmission in the wider community.
There is ample evidence that American students have fallen behind since the pivot to remote learning. A federal report in February said half of K-12 public school students started the school year behind their grade level in at least one subject, most commonly reading or math.
The findings from the latest School Pulse Panel at the National Center for Education Statistics are statistically unchanged from last school year. Yet it’s much worse than the 36% of students before the pandemic who started the school year on the wrong track, according to the agency, which is the statistical arm of the Department of Education.
The results echoed the first nationwide data on the impact of COVID-era learning on test performance, published in October. Two years of pandemic-disrupted learning erased two decades of U.S. gains in math and reading scores, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found.
Mr. Wenstrup said Tuesday that he wants more information about the decision by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to share draft school reopening guidance with the American Federation of Teachers in early 2021.
The resulting guidance seemed to reflect the union’s demands for flexibility if a new variant appeared and a remote working option for teachers at high risk of illness.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has said the teachers union was among dozens of organizations, including school boards and parent groups, that saw the draft document and offered input.
Mr. Wenstrup is demanding documents and transcribed interviews with AFT President Randi Weingarten and 14 other nongovernmental groups that had a glimpse at the guidance.
“The select subcommittee‘s previous investigation into this matter uncovered that CDC deviated from standard practice,” Mr. Wenstrup said in a letter to the CDC. “You granted AFT ‘uncommon’ access to revise and edit an internal draft of the Operational Strategy at least two weeks prior to its release, even making line-by-line additions.”
Ms. Mazyck told the panel that her school nurses association received one of the letters and plans to cooperate.
• Sean Salai contributed to this story.
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
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