Last week, two new reports confirmed the catastrophic damage caused by a year of remote schooling. Not only did American schoolchildren fall dramatically behind in the school year, the damage was substantially greater for low-income and minority schoolchildren, whose families tended to lack the resources to navigate the perils of turning their home into a virtual classroom.
Also last week, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten slipped a rather ominous comment into an interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd. “We’re going to keep kids safe, we’re going to keep our members safe, we’re going to try to open up schools,” she said. That “try” was a notable retreat from her concession two months ago that, after more than a year of throwing up impediments to in-person instruction, “we can and we must reopen schools in the fall.”
The mere possibility that some schools may be forced to haggle once again with their unions to reopen school in the face of incontrovertible evidence of the need to do so is maddening enough. But the cherry on top of this sundae of public dysfunction is the fact that the national teachers unions have refused to support a vaccine mandate for teachers. “Vaccinations must be negotiated between employers and workers, not coerced,” says Weingarten. The National Education Association supports allowing an option for weekly testing for teachers instead of requiring a vaccine. New York’s state United Teachers union likewise opposes a vaccine mandate.
So the Delta variant supposedly presents a medical threat so dire that it could potentially limit schooling for the third year in a row. But it’s not serious enough to justify a vaccine requirement for teachers.
This bizarre combination of positions is the product not only of the narrow self-interest that union leaders can advocate on behalf of their members, but also an ideological hothouse they have fostered. A cadre of activists in and around the unions inhabit an alternate reality nearly as paranoid as the one constructed by the pandemic deniers on the right.
As a cost-benefit proposition, opening public schools for in-person education seems like a very easy call. Closing in-person schools deprived working parents of a source of free day care, and hinged their children’s education on their ability to rig up an ersatz home school. If you could acquire reliable wireless internet and supervise them while working from home — or hire a tutor to do it for you — your kids could probably muddle through.
As the new studies show, the families least able to cope with these demands were those whose children were most likely to struggle in school to begin with. As the education assessment group NWEA finds, white third-graders in 2021 on the whole performed 9 percentile points lower in math than the same cohort did two years before, a huge drop in aggregate. Black and Latino third-graders performed 17 and 15 percentile points lower, respectively — a learning loss nearly twice as large. The toll in learning loss, mental-health agony, and supercharged inequality will burden us for years, perhaps decades.
The awful thing is that 15 months of closed schools has brought with it hardly any public-health benefit. Even before widespread vaccinations, evidence suggested that closing schools contributed very little to suppressing the COVID-19 pandemic. As David Wallace-Wells explains in a brilliant synthesis of the research, COVID’s age gradient is its most pronounced feature. Most of the public attention has focused on the high end of the age gradient: for the middle-aged and elderly, COVID is far deadlier than influenza. But the fact most relevant to the school question is the left end of the age gradient, and for young children, contracting the coronavirus is actually less dangerous than getting the flu.
It’s true, of course, that children can still spread the virus to older people. But now that the elderly have overwhelmingly gotten vaccines, and the vaccines provide near-total protection from deadly cases, the public-health rationale for closing schools has collapsed.
How, then, did this policy manage to survive to the point where it has not been universally disavowed a year and a half into the pandemic? The strongest constituency for school closings all along has been teachers unions. A recent paper by Harvard Business School’s Joshua Coval found that school districts that had implemented union-friendly contracts were the most likely to require remote instruction. Many families also supported extended school closings, in part because they considered their local teachers union a trustworthy source on when it was safe to open schools.
Teachers unions and the activists and intellectuals who support their cause have spent years developing an intense skepticism of any quantitative measures of educational attainment. Before COVID, these anti-testing arguments were used mainly to block education reform. Once the pandemic struck, and unions found themselves in the position of defending remote education, they repurposed their anti-testing logic to deride the case for reopening the schools.
The pro-union left has spent the last year insisting there was no solid evidence that closing schools resulted in less education. “While remote learning surely affects students, we don’t know yet exactly how or how much,” argued one representative column, in Forbes. “Learning loss isn’t a meaningful answer.”
Some of the skeptics suggested darkly that “learning loss” was a fake crisis designed to create a market niche for nefarious profiteers. “Learning loss has become more of a marketing catchphrase than a term that captures what students have faced in the last year,” argued another op-ed. “The marketing of learning loss, however, has been fairly effective in getting money allocated that will almost certainly end up benefiting the industry that coined the phrase.”
Within this ideological hothouse, learning loss is not a problem but a “narrative” concocted by shadowy neoliberal forces. Naturally, they reject this “narrative” that a union-backed policy hurts children, in favor of a competing narrative that flatters their political goals. Several researchers have privately confided their fear of the abuse they receive online for sharing any research or opinions that contradict pro-teachers-union activists.
Contacted by the Times to respond to the latest studies measuring learning loss, University of Washington Education professor Ann Ishimaru dismissed the findings out of hand. “The problem with the learning loss narrative is it is premised on a set of racialized assumptions and focused on test scores,” she explained. “It is especially kids of color who are presumed to be harmed by being at home.”
In fact, that children of color are hurt the most by being deprived of a school day is not presumed by these studies, it is proven.
Unions were hardly the sole cause of a bureaucratized hysteria: In many places, parks and beaches remained closed even after outdoor transmission was shown to be exceedingly rare, and ritual scrubbing remained in effect long after surface transmission was debunked as a source of COVID. And of course, Donald Trump’s insistence that the pandemic would simply disappear created a countervailing safety monomania on the left. Arguments for keeping schools closed were planted in the fertile soil of a progressive atmosphere that often implicitly or explicitly treated any risk of spreading COVID as unacceptable.
“Consistently repeated is the idea that COVID-19 is low-risk for children,” reasoned one article in the progressive American Prospect last month. “But low-risk is not ‘no risk’; children have indeed been hospitalized for COVID-19 and have died.” If “no risk” is the standard, then any measure to contain its spread, however costly, becomes a moral necessity.
A number of left-wing activists on social media have adopted a tone of hectoring moralism against the very idea of applying a cost-benefit test to measures to contain COVID. If you question the efficacy of any social-distancing measure, including a draconian policy like closing schools, you are against the children, pro-death, and so on.
Yet somehow the unions opposing a vaccine mandate have largely escaped the left’s moralistic fury. Not all unions have refused to require their members to get their shots as a condition of employment. (AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka has endorsed a mandate). But the teachers unions have played an especially prominent obstructive role. Union leaders, even if they have pragmatic goals, have to negotiate internally with their own activist base and its extreme ideas.
Last winter, National Education Association president Becky Pringle came out against even prioritizing vaccines for teachers. “We don’t want to be in the business of putting a hierarchy in place, because some of our members are being bullied into returning back to classrooms,” she told the Times in December. “That’s not safe, we don’t want to support that.”
“Teachers should have the right to decide whether they want the vaccine or not,” Weingarten explained in a Nation story two months ago, lauding the unions for protecting their members. “We have been very careful in this early stage of pushing back when someone has said that the vaccine should be mandatory.” The story containing those remarks ran under the headline, “How Teachers Fought for Their Safety in the Pandemic — and Won.”
That this resistance could even exist, let alone be lionized, might seem unfathomable. Requiring teachers get vaccinated seems completely obvious from the standpoint of both public health and public education. But if you discount the benefit of in-person schooling — remember, the need to reopen schools is just a “narrative” pushed by testing companies, with racist overtones to boot — then you don’t see any great benefit from vaccinating the workforce. Indeed, vaccinating the teachers will simply lead to more pressure to keep the schools open, even if the Delta wave continues. And since vaccines don’t offer complete protection, forcing teachers to work in schools with unvaccinated students means subjecting them to non-zero risk.
There’s an old joke that only poor people can be “crazy” — rich people are simply “eccentric.” Take that joke and substitute your political opponents for the poor, and your political friends for the rich, and you have a pretty good description for how people have responded in the face of COVID madness. Vaccine skeptics ranting to Tucker Carlson? They’re crazy. Teachers unions that refuse to require vaccination? They’re just a little eccentric.
It’s natural to interpret the positions of your allies in the most sympathetic light. Even rigorously pro-science conservatives can explain why their delusional anti-vaxx friends have some legitimate suspicions and grievances. The logic of polarization drives us to downplay the irrationality on our own side and focus on the other. But at the end of the day, a dangerous and delusional worldview is a dangerous and delusional worldview.