Editor’s Note: Mary Katharine Ham is a CNN commentator, author and host of the “Getting Hammered” podcast. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Sometimes, people don’t believe me when I say the schools in much of the US were closed for a year. If you didn’t see it up close, it would seem absurd, even impossible.
In contrast, there was a parallel pandemic where kids attended fully functioning private schools, in person. In many red states and rural areas, public schools reopened in the fall of 2020. Europe and much of the developed world sent kids back to school almost immediately after initial Covid-19 shutdowns with minimal restrictions.
While there was understandable fear for the safety of students and teachers alike when the pandemic began, data quickly showed that schools could reopen safely, and many did, even in a pre-vaccine world. Early findings were then bolstered by further studies throughout the 2020-21 school year.
Returning teachers and administrators certainly faced risks. They worried for their students, themselves and their own families. But as the school year progressed, the high costs of virtual school led some public-health officials to change their tune on the risk calculus, suggesting that in the time of vaccines and other mitigations, “teachers need to accept, as other essential workers have, that returning to school will entail some risk.”
Often, Democratic politicians, health and school officials, and teachers unions in some of America’s bluest cities and suburbs aligned perfectly in a mission to keep school doors closed for so long. In these places, in-person instruction was deemed nonessential by the very people who claim to fight for public-school education.
The high academic and social costs of remote learning and closed schools are now indisputable, but there was also a political cost. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia capitalized on it by appealing to frustrated parents in 2021. He won an underdog race in this increasingly blue battleground state, the first statewide win for the GOP in more than a decade, on the strength of improved suburban performance combined with rural base turnout.
His opponent former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s defining gaffe – “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” – solidified his party’s image as aligned with school boards and teachers unions, as did his decision to have American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten stump for him at the close of the race.
After that loss, and a squeaker for Democrats in a New Jersey governor’s race animated by many of the same issues, the landscape changed. The American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that for the 2021-22 school year, the risks of closing schools outweighed opening them – even in the face of more contagious variants like Delta and Omicron. But the political damage remains for Democrats, who had become the face of school-closure policy.
Is it any wonder, then, that in a recent NPR-PBS-Marist poll of parents, 60% of parents with children under 18 favored the Republican Party headed into midterm elections? Education has been a perennial strength for Democrats. A longtime 15 to 20 point lead on the issue has dwindled to single digits, with Republicans occasionally leading. The change reflects what Democrats first saw in Virginia, where McAuliffe lost a 33-point lead among voters who prioritized education over less than two months.
Much of blue America, which kept schools remote or hybrid for the 2020-2021 school year, conducted an unprecedented “social experiment” on children, resorting to lengthy school closures for millions of children – a tactic not used during other national emergencies or previous pandemics.
Now, the results are in from the “social experiment” and they are very, very bad, and the people who supported closures are finally ready to talk about it.
“Remote learning was a failure,” wrote David Leonhardt of The New York Times, describing the consensus of researchers and the findings of a new study out of Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, which compared pre-pandemic scores on a particular national test (MAP) in 49 states and Washington, DC, to pandemic-era scores in high- and low-income districts, in-person, hybrid and virtual learning.
“The main effects of hybrid and remote instruction are negative, implying that even at low-poverty (high income) schools, students fell behind growth expectations when their schools went remote or hybrid,” the study authors write. But they fared better than students already at a disadvantage.