Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

School Closures Were a Catastrophic Error. Progressives Still Haven’t Reckoned With It.

Sometimes you need to own up to an error so it’s not repeated.

Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

Recently, Nate Silver found himself in the unenviable role of main character of the day on Twitter because he proposed that school closures were a “disastrous, invasion-of-Iraq magnitude (or perhaps greater) policy decision.” The comparison generated overwhelming anger and mockery, and it is not an easy one to defend: A fiasco that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and rearranged the regional power structure is a very high bar to clear. Weighing policy failures in such utterly different realms to each other is so inherently difficult that any discussion quickly devolves into “Could Superman beat up Mighty Mouse?” territory.

But these complications do not fully explain the sheer rage generated by Silver. The furnace-hot backlash seemed to be triggered by Silver’s assumption that school closings were not only a mistake — a possibility many progressives have quietly begun to accept — but an error of judgment that was sufficiently consequential and foreseeable that we can’t just shrug it off as a bad dice roll. It was a historic blunder that reveals some deeper flaw in the methods that produced it and which demands corrective action.

That unnerving implication has a mounting pile of evidence to support it. It is now indisputable, and almost undisputed, that the year and a quarter of virtual school imposed devastating consequences on the students who endured it. Studies have found that virtual school left students nearly half a year behind pace, on average, with the learning loss falling disproportionately on low-income, Latino, and Black students. Perhaps a million students functionally dropped out of school altogether. The social isolation imposed on kids caused a mental health “state of emergency,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The damage to a generation of children’s social development and educational attainment, and particularly to the social mobility prospects of its most marginalized members, will be irrecoverable.

It is nearly as clear that these measures did little to contain the pandemic. Children face little risk of adverse health effects from contracting COVID, and there’s almost no evidence that towns that kept schools open had more community spread.

In the panicked early week of the pandemic, the initial decision to close schools seemed like a sensible precaution. Authorities drew on the closest example at hand, the 1918 Spanish flu, which was contained by closing schools.

But in relatively short order, growing evidence showed that the century-old precedent did not offer much useful guidance. While the Spanish flu was especially deadly for children, COVID-19 is just the opposite. By the tail end of spring 2020, it was becoming reasonably clear both that remote education was failing badly and that schools could be reopened safely.

What happened next was truly disturbing: The left by and large rejected this evidence. Progressives were instead carried along by two predominant impulses. One was a zero-COVID policy that refused to weigh the trade-off of any measure that could even plausibly claim to suppress the pandemic. The other was deference to teachers unions, who were organizing to keep schools closed. Those strands combined into a refusal to acknowledge the scale or importance of losing in-person learning with a moralistic insistence that anybody who disagreed was callous about death or motivated by greed.

Social scientists have measured the factors that drove schools to stay closed last year. One study found schools with unionized teachers, more of which were located in more Democratic-voting districts, were more likely to remain all virtual. Another likewise found “local political partisanship and union strength,” rather than the local severity of COVID, predicted school closing.

It is always easier to diagnose these pathologies when they are taking place on the other side. You’ve probably seen the raft of papers showing how vaccine uptake correlates with Democratic voting and COVID deaths correlate with Republican voting. Perhaps you have marveled at the spectacle of Republican elites actively harming their own audience. But the same thing Fox News hosts were doing to their elderly supporters, progressive activists were doing to their side’s young ones.

In a big country, there are always going to be crazy people at the margins. You can measure the health of the parties by the degree to which crazy ideas are taken up by powerful people. (This, of course, is why the Republican Party handing the most powerful job in the world to a conspiracy theorist is the grimmest possible sign.) But the Democratic Party’s internal debate on school closings was making room at the table for some truly unhinged ideas. The head of the largest state’s most powerful teachers union insisted on the record “there is no such thing as learning loss” and described plans to reopen schools as “a recipe for propagating structural racism.”

Within blue America, transparently irrational ideas like this were able to carry the day for a disturbingly long period of time. In recent days, Angie Schmitt and Rebecca Bodenheimer have both written essays recounting the disorienting and lonely experience they had watching their friends and putative political allies denounce them for supporting a return to in-person learning. Bodenheimer’s account is especially vivid:

“Parents who advocated for school reopening were repeatedly demonized on social media as racist and mischaracterized as Trump supporters. Members of the parent group I helped lead were consistently attacked on Twitter and Facebook by two Oakland moms with ties to the teachers union. They labeled advocates’ calls for schools reopening “white supremacy,” called us “Karens,” and even bizarrely claimed we had allied ourselves with Marjorie Taylor Greene’s transphobic agenda.”

The fevered climate of opinion ruled out cost-benefit thinking and instead framed the question as a simple moral binary, with the well-being of public schoolchildren somehow excluded from the calculus. Social scientists like Emily Oster who spoke out about the evidence on schools and COVID became hate targets on the left, an intimidating spectacle for other social scientists who might have thought about speaking up.

The failed experiment finally came to an end in the fall of 2021. (A handful of districts have shut down during the Omicron wave, but this is mainly a temporary response to staff shortages rather than another effort to stop community spread.) The Chicago Teachers Union, one of the more radical unions, did stage a strike, but it was met with firm opposition from Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot and ended quickly.

But the source of the sentiment has not disappeared. The Democratic Party’s left-wing vanguard is continuing to flay critics of school closings as neoliberal ghouls carrying out the bidding of the billionaire class. Bernie Sanders aide Elizabeth Pancotti claims that “the loudest and most ardent supporters of keeping schools oepn [sic] (& those who dismiss legit concerns about teacher/child health risks) are largely those with remote work options/resources for alternative child care arrangements,” as if only some selfish motive could explain the desire of an American liberal to maintain public education. A story in Vice praises a student walkout in New York as a national model.

The ideas that produced the catastrophic school-closing era may have suffered a setback, but its strongest advocates hardly feel chastened. Whether educational achievement can or should be measured at all remains a very live debate within the left.

Most progressives aren’t insisting on refighting the school closing wars. They just want to quietly move on without anybody admitting anybody did anything wrong.

One of the grievances that critics of the Iraq War nursed after the debacle became clear was the failure of the political Establishment to draw any lessons broader than “don’t invade Iraq without an occupation plan.” Their anger was not unfounded. The catastrophe happened in part because the structure of the debate allowed too many uninformed hawkish voices and ignored too many informed dovish ones. (As a chastened Iraq War supporter myself, I’ve grown far more cautious about wading into foreign-policy debates for which I lack adequate understanding.)

Many liberals are complaining that the recent debates over short-term closings are creating a hysterical overreaction from people still angry about the 2020-21 school shutdown. Perhaps a first step to building trust that we are not planning to repeat a catastrophic mistake is to admit the mistake in the first place.

Progressives Must Reckon With the School Closing Catastrophe