Locking kids out of school for months (over a year and counting in some places) is likely to be by far the biggest policy blunder of the pandemic era. One study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that missing just the first two months of elementary school will result in a loss of 13.8 million years of life, because there is a strong relationship between education and life expectancy. Other studies have shown a gap of five years in life expectancy between high school graduates and drop-outs, which are likely to spike dramatically with large urban districts reporting many high school students never logged on to remote learning. In years-of-life-lost terms, school closures may well prove more deadly than coronavirus.
But because school closures have essentially no effect on the spread of the virus, there is not even a tradeoff between the two. Extended school closures simply layer catastrophic educational, social, and health harms on top of the virus harms that happen anyway. School closures have nearly no effect on virus transmission because children are less likely to be infected than adults and less infectious when they are infected. This is true even with schools operating completely normally, as they did in Sweden throughout the pandemic. The New England Journal of Medicine published results showing 15 total pediatric ICU admissions out of 1.95 million children in Sweden with zero deaths. Schoolteachers had an age-adjusted risk 57 percent lower than the overall population.
This is unsurprising because it was clear by February 2020 that the coronavirus overwhelmingly spares children, for whom it is less dangerous than influenza, and that therefore adults in school buildings were at lower, not higher, than typical occupational risk. Now that vaccination has been offered teachers have the option to further reduce their risk to near zero. By April 2020 we had strong evidence from Europe that schools could open — without masking or other extraordinary measures — without any impact on community spread. Schools closed and stayed closed not to advance public health interests but out of panic — and that panic was stoked and exploited by teachers’ unions.
The original CDC school guidance from over a year ago cautioned against school closures. The document, like so much of the scientific conventional wisdom that was later ditched in favor of the mask-distance-lock schools COVID-19 catechism, now reads as prophetic:
“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 modeling also shows that other mitigation efforts (e.g., handwashing, home isolation) have more impact on both spread of disease and health care measures. In other countries, those places who closed school (e.g., Hong Kong) have not had more success in reducing spread than those that did not (e.g., Singapore).”
Trump CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield regularly pointed out that, based on science, all schools should be open throughout the pandemic. While he acknowledged containment measures in schools were not necessary, his agency developed guidelines intended to help skittish schools reopen. They largely had the opposite effect.
By summer 2020 we had overwhelming evidence that schools were low-risk settings and children were not at risk from all over the world. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued strong science-based guidance calling for all schools to open full-time and cautioning against masking younger students. Then just 11 days later they backtracked and endorsed school closures — in a joint statement with the teachers unions.
These were the new battle lines. Unions wanted schools closed indefinitely with a long list of demands, many completely unrelated to COVID-19, to maximize their leverage. In places where they had the most political power, they could and did keep schools closed indefinitely. Research by Corey DeAngelis and Christos Makridis found that “school districts in locations with stronger teachers’ unions are less likely to reopen in person,” and they did “not find evidence to suggest that measures of COVID-19 risk are correlated with school reopening decisions.”
In February 2021, the teachers unions made their play for an astronomical ransom — over $125 billion dollars in no-strings funding for K-12 schools, most not to even be spent until 2023 or later, despite the fact that more than $50 billion from the previous COVID-19 relief bill was sitting unspent. It was an audacious raid on the Treasury that could only be linked to keeping school closed as an exercise of pure power politics.
It is no coincidence that in this period the unions amped up their political giving to Democrats. Roll Call found that in the first quarter: “The American Federation of Teachers political action committee gave $1.6 million to congressional candidates and committees, including $1 million to House Majority PAC, a super PAC that boosts Democratic candidates, a CQ Roll Call analysis of federal filings showed. The same group disclosed giving just $45,000 to federal committees in the first three months of 2019, the same point in the two-year election cycle.”
So we should be disgusted but not in the least bit surprised by emails obtained by Adam Laxalt’s group Americans for Public Trust that show how the Biden Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s “school opening guidance” came to actually recommend broad school closures, something the CDC had never previously endorsed. (If that bizarre guidance had been followed, it also would have forced all school sports “virtual only” in over 90 percent of the country. It was meant to be unrealistically draconian. A political document for a lobbying purpose.)
As expected, the teachers unions largely wrote the CDC anti-school guidance, which was then used as a cudgel to pass the massive Biden COVID-19 Exploitation Bill, along with the infusion of taxpayer dollars that mostly flows in 2023 and later. (After the bill passed, the CDC issued new guidance giving schools a green light.)
Dr. Monica Gandhi told the New York Post: “What seems strange to me here is there would be this very intimate back and forth including phone calls where this political group gets to help formulate scientific guidance for our major public health organization in the United States… This is not how science-based guidelines should work or be put together.”
And Dr. Tracy Hoeg — lead author of the CDC Wisconsin study that found schools are extremely low-risk and should be open even during very high community spread — added this on Twitter:
“Finally proof: The CDC Director had been ‘preparing to write that schools could provide in-person instruction regardless of community spread’ when teachers unions intervened. February is when everyone at the CDC started to ignore the findings of our Wisconsin study.
“Unforgivable. How can the CDC, a national public health and scientific agency, value money and politics over science (in their own journal), especially when it leads to both short and long-term harm of our children and inequitable access to education? It is beyond disturbing.”
It is now crystal clear that real science never dictated that schools should be closed (or their students masked). But many students were locked out of classrooms for an entire year or longer to advance corrupt union interests. One of the few blessings of this terrible virus is that it overwhelmingly spares the young — unfortunately, American politics have not.
Phil Kerpen is president of American Commitment and the Committee to Unleash Prosperity.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.
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