As the nation grapples with an increase in COVID cases due to the spread of the Delta variant, a recent report makes clear one thing policymakers should not do in response: Close down in-person learning.
The study, from the consulting firm McKinsey, shows how school shutdowns and lockdowns set back millions of American students—and hurt the poorest and most vulnerable families hardest. It reiterates how prolonged school closures, instigated by overly cautious politicians at the behest of intransigent teachers’ unions, may have set back an entire generation of American children.
Children Falling Behind
The McKinsey report uses testing results from spring 2021, translating points-based scores into a “months-of-learning-lost” metric and comparing this year’s results to pre-pandemic levels. The results show that, on average, elementary school students lost the equivalent of five months—or half a school year—of learning in math, and four months in reading.
Results varied by race and income, and unsurprisingly, students of color and from poorer families suffered most:
Worst of all, these results may underestimate the true impact of COVID on learning loss, because of the types of data used. McKinsey notes that the Curriculum Associates testing results only come from in-school assessments. In other words, the study cannot capture districts, or students, that did not return to in-person learning last spring—and who likely face the greatest educational setbacks due to their prolonged time away from the classroom.
Absenteeism and Mental Health Issues
School closures haven’t just affected students’ academic performance, either. McKinsey conducted a survey of 16,370 parents, finding that roughly 80 percent of these mothers and fathers had some level of concern regarding their child’s mental, social, and emotional health. The survey also found increases of several percentage points in anxiety, depression, and self-isolation.
With the phenomenon of social isolation, other outlets have noted the ways virtual learning, economic dislocation, and school closures led to many students simply disappearing from school rolls in the fall of 2020. The McKinsey report extrapolates from its parent survey to estimate that 2.3 million to 4.6 million high school students became chronically absent during the pandemic—roughly doubling the pre-pandemic total of 3.1 million chronically absent students.
McKinsey also notes that, without immediate intervention by educators, absenteeism could become permanent: “We estimate that an additional 617,000 to 1.2 million eighth-12th graders could drop out of school altogether because of the pandemic.” Those numbers suggest a cohort of students equal to the entire population of cities like San Francisco or Seattle could simply fall through the cracks and disappear from formal learning for good.
The learning losses, chronic absenteeism, and dropouts of the past 16 months will have a profound impact on the economy when the “COVID generation” enters the workforce. McKinsey estimates a potential loss to American GDP of $128 billion to $188 billion each year due to the learning gaps caused by the pandemic.
Do Black Students Matter?
With McKinsey projecting that African American students will suffer nearly twice the lifetime earnings loss from learning gaps as their white counterparts, one should ask the obvious question: For all the talk about the Black Lives Matter movement, when will teachers’ unions and politicians remember that black students matter too?
If unions force Democratic politicians to keep schools shut, affluent families will buy their way out of school closures. Just look at the nation’s largest state, and its governor, Gavin Newsom (D-French Laundry). Newsom sent his children back to in-person learning at their private school last fall, even as unions kept public schools in California closed for much of the school year.
But families without the financial means to do so—whether African Americans in urban areas or households in the rural South and West—remain hostage to the demands of their local school districts and unions that classrooms remain shut. Their children have suffered the most during the pandemic—suffering that could continue if unions use the rise in Delta variant cases to demand continued school closures.
This dynamic explains why I have long supported school choice (and, full disclosure, have done paid consulting work for organizations advocating for more education options). All parents deserve the right to select the school that best meets the unique needs of their sons and daughters, both to counter the harmful effects of the last 16 months and to ensure that their children’s learning will not get held hostage to political interests ever again.