America’s schoolchildren suffered grievously from prolonged school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That was a rare point of consensus at the March 28 hearing of the newly created House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, transcending the standard, tiresome, and transparently partisan criticisms of the Biden and Trump administrations’ pandemic performance.
To improve America’s response to the next pandemic, the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, emphasized that complete honesty in our post-pandemic assessments is nonnegotiable and must be grounded in the best and most accurate data.
Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., the ranking member, echoed those sentiments and emphasized that whatever federal policies Congress adopts must make America’s schools more “resilient” to cope with any future national medical emergency.
As with the subcommittee’s first hearing March 8 on COVID-19’s origins, this was an especially productive congressional inquiry. As reported by The Daily Signal’s Fred Lucas, the lawmakers learned that neither “masking,” nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing recommendations were “evidence based”; that federal funding for school reopening was often misspent; and that the school closure policies apparently contributed to a series of pathologies, including increased anxiety, depression, and even weight gain among the affected children.
Beginning in March 2020, the CDC called on state and local authorities to close schools and keep them closed. The CDC recommended masking of students and teachers, distancing (at first keeping desks 6 feet apart, later revised to 3), and other measures as preconditions for reopening them.
In January 2021, another set of CDC recommendations, based on test positivity rates and community viral transmission, would have kept 90% of the nation’s schools closed.
Much of the sworn witness testimony reaffirmed independent academic analyses published during the past two years. For example:
- School closures were an unnecessary response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Simply put, children were not in danger of severe illness nor death from COVID-19. Dr. Tracy Hoeg, an epidemiologist from the University of California at San Francisco, said that the school closure policies recommended by the CDC and adopted in most states throughout the nation were not based on scientific data and were among the “worst” public health decisions of our lifetimes.
Previous data from a variety of sources confirmed Hoeg’s testimony. For example, according to a 2021 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association, data from 24 states showed that only between 0.1% and 1.9% of all child cases resulted in hospitalization. Data from 43 states, plus New York City, Puerto Rico, and Guam, showed that children’s risk of death was even lower—from 0.00% to 0.02% of all COVID-19 cases.
Not only were children overwhelmingly spared the threat of severe illness and death, previously published European and international data likewise confirmed Hoeg’s testimony that when European schools reopened in 2020, there was no increase in community transmission. A British Royal Society study, for example, observed that “the lower susceptibility of schoolchildren substantially limited the effectiveness of school closure in reducing COVID-19 transmissibility.”
- School closures inflicted lasting damage on American children’s academic achievement. Witness David Zweig, a writer for The Atlantic, observed that if one considers schooling an “essential service,” then the withdrawal of that service inflicted major damage on millions of American children. Beginning in the spring of 2020, children throughout the country did not step foot inside a school door for more than a year, and their educational losses were compounded by the negative impact of social isolation, thus contributing, as noted, to mental health problems, including depression.
Zweig’s testimony reinforced the findings that had been released by the Department of Education last year. Student achievement on a national comparison, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, fell by the largest amounts ever recorded between two test administrations (2019 and 2022) in fourth- and eighth-grade math.
The administrators also found major declines in math and reading proficiency among American students in 2022. For example, in every state, academic proficiency declined. An average 40% of eighth graders in public schools were performing below the NAEP’s “basic” level in math, and among fourth graders, 37% of public school students were performing below the basic reading level.
- School closures widened the gap between public and private school students, and between minority students and white students. Zweig and Virginia Gentles of the Independent Women’s Forum both emphasized that the school closures and the compulsory reliance on remote learning imposed enormous educational costs, particularly for minority children. Zweig testified that the data showed that the longer students were out, the greater the educational loss. Moreover, remote instruction was far more prevalent in black and Hispanic communities, and black and Hispanic students fell behind. Likewise, Gentle noted that children who could avoid lockdowns and attend Catholic or other private schools were one-and-a-half to two years ahead of their public school counterparts.
Both witnesses confirmed previously accumulating data on the subject. Last year, a Harvard University research team found that remote learning contributed to a widening of racial and economic gaps. The researchers emphasized that the greatest student losses were in “high poverty” school districts, where students experienced a 40% loss of a year of learning: “While we have nothing to add regarding the public health benefits, it seems that the shift to remote or hybrid instruction during 2020–21 had profound consequences for student achievement.” Likewise, a United Nations study noted that the costs of school closures “stand to be tremendous in terms of learning losses, health and well-being, and drop-out.”
- School closures inflicted lasting economic damage on children. In his opening remarks, Wenstrup said that the government school closure policies inflicted multiple wounds, not only social and emotional, but also economic. The chairman’s observations on that vital—but often overlooked—point are also well-documented in previous independent academic research. Conducting an econometric analysis of the impact of school closures on American children and their future earnings as far back as April 2020, for example, Brookings Institution scholars estimated that with just four months of “lost education,” the cost to their future earnings would amount to $2.5 trillion (about $7,700 per person in the U.S.).
Diverse scholars also found that American-style school closure policies, if adopted abroad, would seriously damage the global economy. Estimating the global impact of school closures in 2021, researchers writing in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society observed: “Extrapolating to the global level, on the basis that the U.S. economy represents about one-quarter of global output, these data suggest that the world could lose as much as $10 trillion over the coming generation because of school closures today.”
In 2020, researchers writing for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development also concluded, “While the precise learning losses are not yet known, existing research suggests that the students in grades 1-12 affected by the closures might expect some [3%] lower income over their entire lifetimes.”
- School closure policies rendered the United States an outlier in public health policy. Both Zweig and Hoeg noted in their testimony that most European countries pursued a very different path from the United States, and quickly reopened their schools and kept them open. In that respect, the United States was an outlier in the international community. Derek Thompson, a staff writer for The Atlantic, noted that European public health authorities paid attention to the mounting scientific data on childhood transmission and sickness that American officials simply ignored:
Schools remained open in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy in late 2020 and early 2021. (Some European schools were later closed briefly during the height of the Omicron wave.)
Compared with their counterparts in the U.S., European policymakers seemed to place more faith in reports that schoolchildren did not play a major role in community transmission, and in evidence from Ireland, Singapore, Norway, Israel, South Korea, and North Carolina that young children were less likely than adults to get severely sick from COVID.
The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic has a lot more work to do, and as The Heritage Foundation has recommended, a variety of topics are overripe for in-depth congressional investigation. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
The blunt-force imposition of massive school closures, however, was particularly damaging, and the federal and state officials responsible should be held to account.
As National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty has advised:
Scores of millions of parents figured out that their children weren’t at serious risk, and by the summer of 2020 could read credible science showing their kids at school did not pose serious risks to others.
These millions of people have reasons privately to feel vindicated. But they deserve to have someone in public life affirm the fact that they weren’t crazy, that in fact public health did mislead them, shaded the truth, and occasionally abused the trust placed in them.
No, millions of American parents were not “crazy,” and House Republicans are right to affirm their sanity and the truth that the school lockdown policy was rooted in something other than good data.
It’s another lesson learned from the COVID-19 crisis that should not be repeated.
Note: The names of two of the witnesses cited, David Zweig and Virginia Gentles, have been corrected.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal