The most shameful mistake made in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic was keeping children out of classrooms. Many health authorities, public officials, journalists, teachers unions, and scientists share in the responsibility. It will take a yearslong reckoning to account for how this was inflicted on the nation’s children for a disproven purpose — that keeping schools closed would lessen the spread of COVID-19 — for which there was never any evidence.
While governors who closed schools at the onset of the pandemic are culpable for rashly inflicting a monumentous policy that had no science to back it up, those who continued to force children to suffer after it was publicly obvious that school closures were both useless and an utter disaster bear a particular responsibility.
Listed below are some of the individuals and groups who share the blame. Surely, however, there are many more who contributed to what is the most damaging public health policy in American history.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine was the first governor to shutter all schools statewide because of the pandemic, an order he made on March 12, 2020. “We have to take this action,” he said at the time. “We have to do everything we can to slow down the spread of this virus.” With that order, DeWine opened the floodgates. It would be another two years before governors, mayors, and superintendents would stop shutting school doors.
DeWine’s order, which at the time was universally declared to be the most drastic action in response to the virus in the United States, gave cover to Democrats to pretend closing schools was a laudable policy decision. Republicans also followed him, seeing DeWine’s decision as making school closures the norm.
Later, DeWine seemed to back off from the notion that school closures were ever a good idea. After the Cleveland public schools closed down in January of 2022, he said, “Well, I think that’s a mistake frankly. I think schools, kids need to be in school. And if they’re masked, people are careful, we’ve demonstrated that the spread in schools is not great when kids are masked and we’ve also found out the difficulty that kids have when they’re not in school.”
But both of those facts were established at the time DeWine announced his closure. Consider an essay published in the New York Times on March 10 by Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “There is no clear evidence that [school closures] will slow this outbreak,” she wrote, saying, “If children don’t experience severe illness from or contribute to the spread of Covid-19 — and so far we have found no clear evidence that they do — it’s likely that school closings will have little effect on its spread.”
She also wrote: “Interruptions in education can profoundly harm child development and make it harder to reduce the achievement gap between high- and low-income families.”
And Nuzzo’s perspective was one of many that warned at the time that the spread of COVID-19 would not be decreased by school closures and that children would be harmed by them. A World Health Organization scientist published an article on March 6 using Chinese data to show that COVID-19 spread is not driven by spread in schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also issued guidance March 14 essentially dismissing the efficacy of closures in slowing the spread of COVID-19:
Available modeling data indicate that early, short to medium closures do not impact the epi curve of COVID-19 or available health care measures (e.g., hospitalizations). There may be some impact of much longer closures (8 weeks, 20 weeks) further into community spread, but that modelling also shows that other mitigation efforts (e.g., handwashing, home isolation) have more impact on both spread of disease and health care measures.
But DeWine ignored that information and unleashed school closures on Ohio’s — and perhaps the rest of the nation’s — children. Within one day of his announcement, 15 states had followed.
All 50 states closed schools to in-person instruction at some point during the first half of 2020, as keeping them open became politically unacceptable. Those governors have not acknowledged that this was a mistake and many have used the excuse that so much was unknown about the virus at the time. It is true that all the unknowns and the chaos of the time lessen their guilt. At the same time, as just explained, there was significant scientific evidence available then which strongly suggested closing schools would do little to slow the spread of the virus. Moreover, there was also a wealth of research that showed how children are gravely harmed when they are not in school.
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock did take a stand against school closures when they reopened schools prior to the end of the 2019-2020 school year, but the rest of the country’s schools remained shuttered until at least the start of the next school year. For that, Gordon and Bullock deserve significant credit for standing up even when the left reacted with outrage to their decisions.
In early March of 2020, before DeWine made his fateful announcement, Yale professor Nicholas Christakis argued that it would be better to close schools before a single case of the virus was detected in students than to do so after the virus had infected students.
“If you wait for the case to occur [in your school],” he told NPR, “you still have wound up closing the school, but now you’ve missed the opportunity to have the real benefit that would have accrued had you closed the school earlier.” He added, “It’s sort of closing the barn door after the cow is gone.”
He acknowledged that closing schools before anyone got sick would be “a very difficult thing to do,” but he said it is “probably extremely beneficial and much wiser.”
He went on a public relations tour to hand out his advice which he based on his own studies on influenza in schools — which spreads in a totally different manner than COVID-19 when it comes to children. It was an opportunity for him to expose his research to a wider audience.
Christakis is just one example of an expert with limited knowledge who for one reason or another — often media attention — took a stand for school closures.
These infectious disease experts published an open letter on March 15 which demanded “closing schools nationwide as soon as possible.” They sent it to Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Levy said she was on a bike ride along Atlanta’s Beltline when she became upset that people were “hanging out and clearly had not gotten the memo.”
Levy and her colleagues quickly recruited “more than 100 established infectious disease scientists” to sign their letter. Notably, the letter gave no explanation as to why school closures were warranted apart from calling for people to do everything possible to stop the virus’ transmission. The scientists did not bother to respond to the WHO or the CDC’s arguments that school closures would not be effective in slowing the virus.
With that letter, the narrative was established. Any open school was contributing to COVID-19 deaths.
Fauci jumped onto the shutting-schools-down ship and for months failed to use his position to push against reopenings. At a Senate committee hearing in May of 2020, he was asked if he thought schools should reopen in the fall. He said, “We’ll just have to see on a step-by-step basis. We have a very large country, and the dynamics of the outbreak are different in different regions of the country, so I would imagine that situations regarding school will be very different in one region versus another.”
But in November of 2020, he changed his tune, saying, “Close the bars and keep the schools open,” in reference to New York City.
“Let’s try to get the kids back, and let’s try to mitigate the things that maintain and just push the kind of community spread that we’re trying to avoid,” he said. “And those are the things that you know well — the bars, the restaurants where you have capacity seating indoors without masks.”
“Those are the things that drive the community spread — not the schools,” he admitted.
After its initial position that school closures would be ineffective, the CDC went all in for remote learning.
In June 2020, the CDC was still maintaining that remote learning was the safest option. It promoted extremely stringent recommendations for schools to follow if they reopened, including that children be spaced six feet apart, which proved to be impossible in many schools.
The foil to the CDC was the American Academy of Pediatrics, which strongly recommended in June 2020 that children be “physically present in school.”
Dr. Sean O’Leary, who specialized in pediatric infectious diseases and wrote the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidance, explained that schools were not contributing to the spread of COVID-19: “This virus is different from most of the respiratory viruses we deal with every year. School-age kids clearly play a role in driving influenza rates within communities. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Covid-19.”
He added, “As pediatricians, many of us have recognized already the impact that having schools closed even for a couple months had on children.”
In July 2020, President Donald Trump called for reopening schools, said the closings were a “terrible decision,” and threatened to cut funding if schools did not reopen. The reaction from the left was swift. CNN’s Maeve Reston, for instance, said, “His concern about safety does not apparently extend to schools.”
Paymon Rouhanifard, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, described the left’s reaction in Time magazine:
When President Trump came out in favor of opening schools in July with his usual ham-handed, irresponsible rhetoric, the left adopted a simple heuristic: if Trump is for it, then we must be against it. And we never recovered: Even after Trump left office, progressive leaders nationwide continued to engage in tribalism and political combat rather than doing a clear-eyed analysis of their options.
Credit where credit is due: the New York Times published an editorial in August 2021 calling for schools to reopen. Many on the left had a tantrum over their supposed lack of responsibility. The Times wrote:
American children need public schools to reopen in the fall. Reading, writing and arithmetic are not even the half of it. Kids need to learn to compete and to cooperate. They need food and friendships; books and basketball courts; time away from family and a safe place to spend it.
The paper also cited the Royal College of Pediatrics’ warning that keeping schools closed “risks scarring the life chances of a generation of young people.”
After Trump came out in favor of reopening schools, then-candidate Joe Biden blasted him, saying Trump “just wants schools to open because he’s afraid if they don’t, it will hurt his re-election chances.”
Biden was perfectly happy to set aside the needs of children to take a shot at Trump and ingratiate himself with the left.
Biden later pledged to reopen schools within his first 100 days in office, but he soon showed weakness, lowering his goal to having greater than 50 percent of schools offering in-person classes at least once a week.
Many teachers unions seized on the left-wing sentiment that everything possible must be done to prevent the spread of the virus. Unions in large cities, especially Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, thus pushed successfully for shuttered schools for years.
“The unions have made it pretty clear that they do not want teachers back in school buildings until they’re 100 percent sure they’re safe,” said Katharine Strunk, a professor at Michigan State University, in December of 2020.
Teachers unions had a huge impact on keeping schools closed. One study of 10,000 school districts by political science professors Leslie Finger of the University of North Texas and Michael Hartney of Boston College found that school districts with stronger unions were less likely to hold in-person classes.
In many instances, unions would demand safety protocols that would be impossible to attain. The president of the teachers union in Fairfax, Virginia, Kimberly Adams, demanded in January 2021 that all students be vaccinated and for there to be 14 days of zero community spread in order to reopen. At the time, the vaccine was not available for children under 16.
That’s just one example of all that unions did to keep schools closed. Even in January of 2022, Chicago teachers union members forced the school system to shut down, claiming that they were unsafe in the classroom.
Local Democratic leaders nationwide sold out to the teachers unions and left children to suffer. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, for instance, kept Chicago schools closed until January of 2021.
Some have speculated that the reason schools were in many instances kept closed in Democratic cities through the end of 2020 was to agonize families so that they would vote against Trump. Curiously, the political winds against keeping schools closed began to shift in Democratic states after Biden’s inauguration.
That month, the CDC pushed for schools to reopen, citing a study that showed there was “little evidence that schools contributed in any meaningful way to the spread of COVID-19.”
Study after study has shown the deleterious effects of school shutdowns on children’s learning.
A study by three demographers at the University of Oxford published in April 2021 examining school closures in the Netherlands concluded: “Students made little or no progress while learning from home.” Closing schools for eight weeks, the study found, caused students to have learning loss equivalent to one-fifth of a school year — the same period that schools were closed. A March 2021 study by Horace Mann Educators Corporation found that 97 percent of American K-12 teachers said they had seen learning loss in their students. A March 2021 study by researchers at the University of Stanford concluded that second- and third-graders were roughly 30 percent behind in reading fluency.
But the notion that keeping kids out of school would harm their educational progress was soundly dismissed as ridiculous in December of 2020 by John Ewing, the president of Math for America, which provides fellowships for public school math and science teachers. In an article for Forbes titled “The Ridiculousness Of Learning Loss,” Ewing wrote: “Learning loss is a calculation masquerading as a concept — a rather shallow, naïve, ridiculous concept.” Parents, his thinking went, had nothing to fear about their children getting behind. Echoing the oft-repeated line trotted out to excuse inflicting suffering on children, he wrote: “Kids are resilient.”
Such apologetics enabled Democratic officials, teachers unions, and superintendents to continue forcing children out of the classroom even when the evidence of educational harm was undeniable.
Fourteen months after schools across the country were shuttered following DeWine’s announcement, President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten came out in favor of returning children to the classroom full-time. “Conditions have changed,” she claimed in May 2021.
Weingarten had spent those 14 months pontificating on the dangers of full-time, in-person instruction for children. In September 2020, for instance, she told school districts: “If community spread is too high … if you don’t have the infrastructure of testing, and if you don’t have the safeguards that prevent the spread of viruses in the school, we believe that you cannot reopen in person.”
But her actions came too late. Children in many states had been kept out of the classroom for an entire year, devastating their learning progress and development.
People in positions of power who pushed to keep children out of the classroom are in most cases not being held accountable. Part of the reason is that it seems like no one is responsible because so many are responsible. Moreover, it seems unfeasible to vote out from office or remove from power all those who had a hand in this.
But parents are not forgetting what has been done to their children. They are increasingly taking their children out of school districts that shuttered their doors for long periods of time. And come November, elections will likely mirror the parents’ rights phenomenon that elected Glenn Youngkin to the Virginia governor’s mansion in 2021.