America's Children Are in Crisis. Closed Schools Are the Cause | Opinion

America's children are in crisis, both academically and emotionally. It's time for America to grapple with the damage we've done to our nation's children in an effort to reduce the risk to ourselves.

Two years into the pandemic, one thing is certain: Remote education is no substitute for in-person learning. Rather, the decision to close schools—some for a year and a half—has been catastrophic. Performance on standardized tests has plummeted for all students, with minority and poor students suffering the largest achievement losses. Nearly two-thirds of students who attend mostly Black schools, for example, are now behind. According to Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B Fordham Institute, "We haven't seen this kind of academic achievement crisis in living memory."

Unsurprisingly, achievement declines are steepest for districts that remained virtual longer. Studies have noted that math competency declined at a much higher rate in districts with less in-person instruction. While math passage rates declined on average 14.2 percent in the spring of 2021, that rate of decline shrank to 4.1 percent in schools that had returned to in-person learning.

The student academic crisis is not breaking news. We've known the abysmal results of remote learning for nearly a year now. In February of 2021, Ohio released its standardized test results from October 2020. Compared to the prior year, third graders' performance fell precipitously, equal to the loss of about a third of a year's learning. Consistent with national trends, the learning loss was greatest among poor and minority students, with Black students losing about half of a year of education.

COVID-19 Schools
41 teachers at a charter school in Pennsylvania called out sick on Monday after a student died from COVID-19. Above, a teacher sets up her classroom at Freedom Preparatory Academy as teachers begin to prepare to restart school after it was closed in March due to COVID-19 on August 13, 2020 in Provo, Utah. George Frey/Getty

America's apathy towards academic achievement is shocking. As Harvard University Professor Joseph Allen explains, "[t]here is a casualness with which some approached closing schools that I find deeply concerning, precisely because of the severe harms we've seen accumulate over the past year when schools were closed." Dr. Allen notes that children are at an extremely low risk for serious complications from COVID-19, and that CDC recommendations allow schools safely to operate in-person. "I find it stunning that the country has so failed to prioritize kids," Dr. Allen concludes.

Academic achievement is not the only way students are suffering. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently declared a state of emergency in children's mental health. They cited "soaring rates of mental health challenges among children." In 2020, for example, mental health-related emergency room visits among those aged 12-17 increased 31 percent from 2019. Suicide rates among young girls, in particular, have soared. Indeed, by 2021, suspected suicide attempts for adolescent girls aged 12-17 was up 50.6 percent from pre-pandemic rates.

Shutting down schools when the pandemic was new and data was limited may have been defensible; shutting down schools now is not. Evidence establishes that serious complications to children from COVID-19 are extremely rare. Indeed, kids face a greater risk from swimming and from automobile accidents than from COVID-19. In contrast, the decline in academic competency and the emotional trauma caused by school closures has proved devastating to many students.

Despite all this evidence about risks and harms, schools are once again closing their doors. Chicago teachers are refusing to show up for work. And school districts in Maryland, DC, New York, and Missouri have returned to virtual learning.

To be sure, COVID cases are high. And the virus can lead to serious complications in a small percentage of adults and children. But life involves inevitable trade-offs and risk comparisons. Every parent feels the weight of such risks when they buckle their baby into an infant car seat for the first time.

As the New York Times now acknowledges, many parts of our society have not seriously grappled with the pandemic's trade-offs. Moreover, some researchers are now skeptical that shuttering school doors helped to minimize community spread of COVID-19 at all.

To put it bluntly, many people have been willing to harm children in order to protect themselves. After a year of living selfishly, isn't it time American adults prioritized children?

Erin Hawley is a senior legal fellow at Independent Women's Law Center.

The views in this article are the writer's own.