School Reopenings Are Being Determined by Politics and Unions
School lockdowns have little if anything to do with “science.”
A working paper released this month by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform reveals that local politics – not the severity of COVID-19 – is the most important factor in determining whether k-12 public school districts opened for in-person learning in the fall. Political science professors Michael Hartney and Leslie Finger looked at about 75 percent of the nation’s 10,000 school districts and found that counties that voted 60 percent for Hillary Clinton in 2016 “were nearly 20 percentage points less likely to hold in-person classes than counties that backed Donald Trump by the same margin.” They also report that districts with strong teachers unions were far less likely to bring students back to the classroom. Very interestingly, the professors note that districts “located in counties with a larger number of Catholic schools were less likely to shut down and more likely to return to in-person learning.”
The study’s results are similar to others on the lockdown issue. In July, Jon Valant, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, tracked the reopening plans of over 250 school districts across the country and reported that there was no “no relationship” between each locality’s decision and its number of COVID cases. Valant said that education policy “is just one consideration among many that have been ‘distorted’ by the encroachment of national politics.”
Additionally, in early September, researchers Corey DeAngelis and Christos Makridis released the results of a study they spearheaded, which found that “school districts in places with stronger teachers’ unions are much less likely to offer full-time, in-person instruction this fall.” The authors stress that the results are remarkably consistent after controlling for differences in demographics, including age, race, population, political affiliation, household income, COVID-19 cases, deaths per capita, et al.
And to compound things, Los Angeles County Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer said in a conference call with school administrators and medical staff last month, “We don’t realistically anticipate that we would be moving to either tier 2 or to reopening k-12 schools at least until after the election, in early November.”
While adults are busy playing politics, children are suffering. Badly. Many feel deprived and are unnecessarily fearful. They are bored, isolated, depressed and sometimes traumatized. According to Save the Children, nearly half of kids interviewed in the U.S. said they were worried, while just over one third reported feeling scared, and one quarter felt anxious.
Economically, the lockdowns will have ramifications for many years. In an OECD paper, economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann estimate that already accrued learning losses will amount to $14.2 trillion in current dollars. They add that these losses will grow if schools don’t open soon.
To put things into perspective, we need to look at data – real unspun numbers. According to the CDC, motor vehicle crashes in 2016 accounted for 4,074 deaths of people under the age of 19. Yet the latest figures show that just 108 young people under 17 died from COVID-19 this year. In fact, more children have succumbed to the flu (124) than the coronavirus. Importantly, strong evidence points to the fact that kids are not super-spreaders. In Spain, of all the students and staff who tested positive, 87 percent of them did not infect anyone else at school. Also, not one child in Sweden has died from Covid, and Swedish teachers did not suffer unusually high rates of infection, even though the country never closed schools for those under 16.
Furthermore, per the CDC, those aged 20-49 years have a 99.98 percent survival rate, and for those aged 50-69 years it’s 99.5 percent. As such, teachers have little to fear. So just who is really at risk? It’s people battling an underlying condition such as heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, COPD, cancer, et al. In these cases, additional precautions must be taken to avoid contracting the virus.
So as agenda-driven adults play politics, children suffer, and our economic outlook is grim, can there any upside to all this?
In an intriguing piece in The 74, pundit John M. McLaughlin lays out a scenario. In “7 Ways American Education Could Change Forever After COVID,” he claims that school choice and vouchers will blossom and homeschooling will mushroom, which would lead to shrinking teachers unions and a greater customization of schooling.
Just last week, Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent Austin Beutner – hardly a rabble rouser – called into question decisions made by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Beutner can’t understand why casino cardrooms, breweries and parks as well as indoor malls and nail salons are open, but not schools.
The answer, Mr. Beutner, is that government bureaucrats and unions are in control, and all too often their political agendas extend far beyond the classroom. And until we break the government’s monopoly on education, change is not gonna come.
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Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.