Follow the Science and Open the Schools

Posted: Jan 05, 2021 12:01 AM
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Follow the Science and Open the Schools

Source: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

With so many students now taking their classes from home during the era of Covid, parents are rightly concerned that virtual education isn’t cutting it. Evidence is mounting that their frustration over their children’s education is justified.

Prior to Covid, many public schools were already struggling. Students at Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) fared far worse than the state average on the 2019 Forward Exam, the statewide proficiency test. Just 16.2% of MPS students were proficient or better in math while 18.6% were proficient or better in English language arts.

Worse, Milwaukee has long been notorious for its abysmal racial achievement gap. 

While “The Peoples Revolution” holds “Black Lives Matter” rallies in residential neighborhoods celebrating Christmas—like their protest of the Candy Cane Lane fundraiser for childhood cancer—they should be protesting the state of Milwaukee Public Schools.

The gap in math achievement between white and black students at MPS in 2019 was 30.1 points, up from a 29.5-point gap the prior year. In English, the achievement gap was 34.7 points, according to data compiled by the MacIver Institute.

Students of color were particularly worse off even before Covid. Now that many schools are closed altogether, this dismaying status quo is likely to get even worse in the era of Covid-driven school shutdowns. Parents are reacting. Enrollment in public school districts with exclusively virtual education was down 3% on average, according to a new Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty study.

Conservative education advocates have long feared children would suffer the consequences of shutting down in-person education, and the science backs that up. Thankfully, we also have some allies on the left. Though single op-eds don’t necessarily reflect a media outlet’s consensus, there appears to be growing concern across the political spectrum.

The New York Times several weeks ago warned about educator burnout and noted that“schools have not been linked to substantial transmission” of Covid. The paper of record notes that increased absenteeism and higher dropout rates, and ultimately shorter lifespans, could result from school closures.

The Washington Post joined the Times in sounding the alarm about the damage we’re doing to our children. The paper featured an interview with former Obama Education Secretary John B. King, who warned about “the risk of a lost generation of students.”

The Post further warns about the disparate impact virtual schooling is having on children of color. A study released by McKinsey & Co. “estimates that the shift to remote school in the spring set White students back by one to three months in math, while students of color lost three to five months,” the paper notes.

The McKinsey study, the most recent of many studies with such findings, also found that students overall only learned 67% of the math and 87% of the reading that their peers would have learned by the fall. It’s becoming clear that our kids are suffering a massive setback, and it’s not necessary.

Closer to home, the Wisconsin State Journal urged schools to open back up in a recent editorial. The paper cited Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, who believes that in-person education should be “the default position” of schools.

The State Journal cites data from the NWEA, pointing out the economic and racial gaps that are exacerbated by virtual instruction. The paper also mentions the myriad other negative effects on children’s mental health and general well-being, side effects of being kept at home. Keeping students at home, “contributes to social isolation, abuse, depression and hunger, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s education expert Alan Borsuk also struck a tone of condemnation toward MPS in a recent column, coming just short of begging the MPS Board to develop a plan to re-open.

What happens in our schools is more important to our long-term national security than what happens at the Pentagon. 40% of our nation's students have been learning entirely remotely for eight months, and virtual school is less effective than in-person instruction. In addition, in our nation and state's largest educational systems, kids are actually safer in a school setting than they are in their own homes.

We will soon be in a post-Covid world, but the collateral damage done to our children, especially poor and minority children in big cities, will be felt for years to come. Reading and math proficiency will almost certainly decline in MPS, but achievement will not take similar hits in more well-off suburban districts.

Covid is obviously not to be taken lightly. But the science is clear—schools can safely re-open, and they should.


Senator Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) represents Wisconsin’s 5th Senate District, covering the Milwaukee suburbs and portions of the City of Milwaukee.

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