The Long Shadow of Covid School Closures


    Many other education leaders took a different approach in 2020 and came to favor a faster reopening of schools. In Europe, many were open by the middle of the year. In the U.S., private schools, including Catholic schools, which often have modest resources, reopened. In conservative parts of the U.S., public schools also reopened, at times in consultation with local teachers’ unions.

    Some people did contract Covid at these schools, but the overall effect on the virus’s spread was close to zero. U.S. communities with closed schools had similar levels of Covid as communities with open schools, be they in the U.S. or Europe. How could that be? By the middle of 2020, there were many other ways for Covid to spread — in supermarkets, bars, restaurants and workplaces, as well as homes where out-of-school children gathered with friends.

    Despite the emerging data that schools were not superspreaders, many U.S. districts remained closed well into 2021, even after vaccines were available. About half of American children lost at least a year of full-time school, according to Michael Hartney of Boston College.

    And children suffered as a result.

    They lost ground in reading, math and other subjects. The effects were worst on low-income, Black and Latino children. Depression increased, and the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in children’s mental health. Shamik Dasgupta, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, who became an advocate for reopening schools, called the closures “a moral catastrophe.”

    The closures also caused some Americans to sour on public schools. Nationwide enrollment fell by 1.3 million, or 3 percent, according to the latest federal data. The share of U.S. adults with little or no trust in public schools rose by a few percentage points, to 33 percent, according to Gallup. In last year’s elections, political candidates who supported vouchers — which effectively reduce public-school funding — fared well, as Jonathan explains in his story.

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