Domestic Affairs

Democrats are Blundering School Reopenings

Over the past year, Democrats have often lauded themselves as “the party of science” while accusing previous Republican administrations of eschewing the advice and research of scientists. According to their official platform, “Republican administrations often turn their backs on science.” However, it is the Democrats who are now shunning logic and reason in favor of ignorance and irrationality. Instead of affiliating themselves with their self-proclaimed allies, science and evidence, many key Democratic figureheads are delaying school reopenings, creating a precarious trajectory for getting children back into the classroom. Democrats are thus playing politics with both the lives of children and with the future of this country. 

The consequences of keeping schools closed are dire. First, current virtual learning is simply a less effective means of education than in-person learning, and as a result, academic performance is dropping across the board. The average student in grades three through eight dropped 5-10 percentiles in math assessments, and that is not counting the three million vulnerable students (homeless, foster care, disabilities, ESL) that appear not to be in school at all. Even more chilling is the fact that this burden falls primarily on the nation’s poorest communities. For example, 17 million children who depend on school lunches as their only steady source of food are left with nothing. Chronic absence, which is defined by missing at least 10% of school days, has drastically risen this year, as well. This leads to a cascading series of problems that set up students for failure in future school years, perpetuating the same societal and generational inequalities that the Democratic Party has pledged to fix. 

Many people are under the impression that once the pandemic has subsided and in-person learning resumes, everything will just return to normal. However, this is far from the truth. Bethany Gross, an associate director at the Center of Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington who studied school closures after Hurricane Katrina, made it clear that this is a problem that will leak into the future as well: “It was not just a one-year recovery, things just don’t fall back into place.” 

Arguably a more pressing matter is the mental health of children as a result of virtual learning. It is no secret that increased socialization and interaction are critical to child development, as the lack of it leads to a plethora of mental health crises. In addition to an increase in stress (which has been correlated with a host of other physiological problems), emergency rooms have seen a 24% increase in mental health visits from children aged five to eleven and a 31% increase in children 11 to 18. The lack of social stimulus and interpersonal interaction as a result of school closures has been directly tied to this mental health crisis. This means that an entire generation of children are growing up battling mental health problems, and it doesn’t take a psychologist to acknowledge the glaring societal problems this can cause in the future. 

Indeed, opening in-person learning for millions of children in grades K-12 will undoubtedly increase the risk of COVID-19. However, studies have shown that there is little evidence of secondary transmission from children attending school and that children are also unlikely to be the main drivers of COVID-19. Many people still maintain an irrational fear that school paves the way for super-spreader events, when in fact, schools are not responsible for the same type of outbreaks as nursing homes, correctional facilities, and high-density worksites. In fact, there is almost no evidence showing that schools have meaningfully increased transmission. And if all this data was not enough to be convincing (because it relies on theoretical exposures and possible interactions), we can look to real-world examples in countries like France and The Netherlands, which have both opened schools and seen no increase in infections as a result. The simple fact remains that if precautionary measures are put into place, COVID-19 contraction in schools will be inconsequential. Moreover, with 282.7 billion dollars of the COVID-19 relief bills allocated to education, these measures should not be hard to achieve. The CDC has consolidated much of this information into a succinct set of guidelines to ensure that these specifications are available and achievable. By employing reason and following these guidelines, there should be nothing left in the way to reopen schools. 

Despite all this evidence, when CDC director Rochelle Walensky made the statement that teacher vaccinations were not necessary for in-person learning, she was faced with vitriolic backlash from Democrats everywhere. What is the source of this betrayal of party values? The answer lies in the fact that policy is about power, and when powerful people (in this case the teacher’s unions) do not like the policy, it faces a steep uphill battle. But this should not be an excuse. The Democrats have spent the last four years complaining about Donald Trump and the Republicans succumbing to powerful lobbying by rolling back regulations. Now, they have what they wanted: control of Congress and the White House. It is time to prove that politics can be about what is right, and the Democrats owe it to the American people to set a precedent of virtuous leadership. 

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