One couldn’t help but notice the ironic timing. One week after the release of results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed a historically large decline in student test scores during Covid-induced lockdowns, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten tweeted out approval of an article in The Atlantic calling for “a pandemic amnesty:”
Apart from the obvious quip of whether there’s an amnesty the left will not support, Weingarten represents perhaps the last person who has the right to advance this message. School lockdowns went on for far longer than they needed to, thanks to Weingarten and her union cronies — and America’s children paid the price. Parents across the country can and should take offense at Weingarten’s dismissive attempt at self-absolution.
Public Schools’ Prolonged Shutdowns
Weingarten’s intervention aside, The Atlantic article has more than a nugget of truth in it. At the beginning of the pandemic, we didn’t know a lot about Covid — exactly how and where it was transmitted, how to treat it, and so much else. In such an environment, people obviously would make statements they thought were true, and promote policies they thought beneficial, only to discover that later evidence proved them wrong.
To that end, writer and professor Emily Oster makes a fair point:
There is an emerging (if not universal) consensus that schools in the U.S. were closed for too long: The health risks of in-school spread were relatively low, whereas the costs to students’ well-being and educational progress were high. The latest figures on learning loss are alarming. But in spring and summer 2020, we had only glimmers of information. Reasonable people — people who cared about children and teachers — advocated on both sides of the reopening debate.
Notice the key qualifier here: “In spring and summer 2020,” people had little information about how Covid spread, and therefore (in Oster’s view) school lockdowns seemed reasonable.
But lockdowns didn’t last only through spring and summer 2020. In many cases, they lasted through the spring of 2021. A tracker of schools’ opening status found that a majority of public schools did not go back to fully in-person learning until the week of April 19, 2021. That’s more than one year after the pandemic began, and well after the period in which Oster argues incomplete and imperfect information should excuse public officials’ poor policy choices. Well into January 2021, at least 1 in 6 public schools remained fully remote, with the schoolhouse doors shut to all would-be learners.
By contrast, an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, released on the heels of the dismal NAEP scores nationwide, notes that Catholic schools took a different approach. Most Catholic schools had reopened their doors by the fall of 2020. And whereas public school students’ test scores dropped dramatically from pre-pandemic levels, scores in Catholic schools actually rose — particularly for African American and Hispanic students.
In other words, by the fall of 2020, school closures, and the drop in test scores that appear to have been caused by the same, represented a policy choice, one that Weingarten and the AFT embraced.
To her credit, Oster notes that she advocated for school reopenings, and (wrongly, in my view) received harsh criticism at the time for doing so. Weingarten and the organization she heads, on the other hand, didn’t just support prolonged shutdowns — they worked behind the scenes to keep schools closed.
Documents released pursuant to Freedom of Information Act requests revealed how, within weeks of the Biden administration taking office, the American Federation of Teachers received a draft copy of Centers for Disease Control guidance on reopening schools. Several AFT-suggested passages raising doubts about school reopenings were adopted almost verbatim by the CDC, leading one public health expert to ask why “this political group [i.e., the AFT] gets to help formulate scientific guidance for our major [federal] public health organization. … This is not how science-based guidelines should work or be put together.”
Having found herself on the wrong side of history for promoting prolonged lockdowns, Weingarten has spent the past several months trying to rewrite it. However, her claims that AFT supported prompt school reopenings sparked so much pushback that she apparently now wishes to move beyond the entire matter.
America’s Children Suffered
Oster’s article argues that, in the interests of moving forward, “we need to learn from our mistakes and then let them go.” Certainly, perpetual gloating and/or insults won’t advance anyone’s long-term interests, even if they may make people temporarily feel self-satisfied.
But between the two extremes of forgetting history entirely or, to take a more cynical view, putting it in the proverbial memory hole and holding a perpetual grudge stands the appropriate middle ground, where people 1) admit fault and 2) take steps to make amends.
In the case of school lockdowns and their devastating effects, the solutions seem obvious. Even if she won’t offer her resignation as AFT president, will Weingarten admit that she and her organization got things wrong by casting doubt on reopening in AFT’s clandestine communications with the CDC? Will the public school teachers who spent months and months out of the classroom during the 2020-21 academic year commit to doing more in terms of after-school tutoring, to make up for the poor policies their union adhered to for far too long?
The American people should not try to exact vengeance on political leaders who made erroneous policy choices — but they have every reason to demand accountability, including from “leaders” such as Weingarten who fail to admit their mistakes. The children who could suffer the effects of pandemic-era learning loss for years, or even decades, to come should expect no less.