By Liv Finne
Gov. Jay Inslee responded to the national COVID-19 health crisis by closing the public schools in Washington state to in-person instruction from March 2020 to September 2021 and allowing them to reopen sporadically the fall of 2021. The governor also mandated the use of masks and other face coverings and implemented social distancing rules in daycares and schools from March 2020 to March 2022.
We are now learning that two years of these strict policies have imposed long-term harm on the 1.1 million students attending Washington’s public schools and have limited their opportunities in life.
University researchers and child development experts report that keeping schools closed made children, the cohort at lowest risk from COVID, pay a high cost in this crisis.
Researchers at McKinsey and Company found that closing schools imposed “a hurt that could last a lifetime,” particularly harming low-income Hispanic and black students.
Experts estimate that some 2% to 9% percent of high school students dropped out, that social and emotional isolation and anxiety increased, and that U.S. students lost, on average, a year’s worth of full-time work in lifetime earnings as a result of COVID-related learning losses.
Similarly, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine concluded that, in weighing the health risks of banning in-person instruction, schools should have reopened in September 2020 to in-person instruction, at least for grades K through 5, and for special needs children.
Researchers at the University of Washington and the University of California at Los Angeles found that children who do not graduate from high school will likely experience a lifetime of lower wages, and that prolonged, missed instruction contribute to lower life expectancy.
The respected National Bureau of Economic Research, found that:
“Children living in the poorest 20 percent of U.S. neighborhoods will experience the most negative and long-lasting effects of school closures.
“Students will recover some of these learning deficits… but more than half of the education gap accrued during the crisis will persist.”
Leaders in many other states and in 20 Western and Asian countries found ways to safely reopen to students by September 2020, as did Washington’s private schools and public charter schools. Still, public schools in Washington remained closed the entire 2020-21 school year. Washington state was 47th in the nation to reopen its schools.
In perhaps one of the most insensitive statements by a public figure, the president of the Washington Education Association said “don’t worry about how closed schools were harming children because they are all falling behind together.”
The long-term harm suffered by children from lock-down and school closure policies is becoming clear:
• The latest assessments show public schools have failed to provide 70% of students adequate instruction in math, and have failed to provide 52% of students adequate instruction in English;
• Test results show public schools failed to provide 85% of black and Hispanic students adequate instruction in math, and failed to provide 68% of black and Hispanic students adequate instruction in English;
• This year, 8,700 fewer low-income students applied for state-funded college scholarships;
• High school students report experiencing high levels of psychological stress and emotional harm from being isolated from their peers for nearly two years;
• Athletes skilled in soccer, football, volleyball and other sports were unable to demonstrate their skills on the field and in the gym, a ban that resulted in fewer opportunities to win a college scholarship;
• State officials canceled grading metrics and lowered academic standards, and automatically promoted students, regardless of whether they had received the education they were promised.
Now that the data are in, let’s hope state leaders learn from the pain they caused by over-reacting to COVID. Reasonable health measures make sense, but we now know that extreme lockdown policies that hurt children create long-term harms that far exceed any marginal health benefits. Next time there’s a public health scare, let’s not repeat the same mistakes.
Liv Finne, of Seattle, is director of the Center for Education at the Washington Policy Center. Members of the Cowles family, owners of The Spokesman-Review, have previously hosted fundraisers for the Washington Policy Center and sit on the organization’s board.