Children all over the world have suffered immeasurably during the COVID-19 pandemic. To be clear, they didn’t suffer from the disease itself, as every data set available irrefutably indicates that child mortality has been somewhere between vanishingly rare and non-existent. No, children suffered during quarantine from the lockdowns themselves – from having to pivot to remote learning or none at all, from being sequestered away from the world, and from the consequences of having their social lives reduced to interacting solely on screens. In the wake of the pandemic’s devastations on the lives of our youth, what can we do to remedy the impacts and to address the ever-pressing question of equity in education for all?
Quarantines were decided hastily after governments took the massively flawed Imperial College model as gospel. As a direct result, spikes in suicides, drug overdoses, deaths from alcoholism, domestic abuse, as well as people dying from preventable or treatable diseases because they were too afraid to go to hospitals have only just begun to be counted. Of far less interest to the mainstream media has been the well-being of children trying to cope with profound disruptions to their lives and learning.
After COVID-19 was finally declared a pandemic by the WHO on March 11, 188 countries closed schools, leaving 1.5 billion children worldwide without education for the ensuing three months. In April, the United Nations issued a policy brief on the global health crisis, in which it stated, “All children, of all ages, and in all countries, are being affected. This is a universal crisis, and for some children, the impact will be lifelong.” This is a sobering assessment of the ancillary effects of COVID-19 on our children.
While much of Europe opened its schools again, there are few official projections about American schools opening fully in the fall. When schools do reopen, many will have to contend with the lost learning, the stressors suffered by children in isolation from their peers, and the forfeiture of a sense of normalcy. Schools will need to increase their mental health professionals, nurses, and learning intervention teachers to attempt to regain lost academic ground and support children in need of these resources. Unfortunately, despite an overall 3.7% increase in per-pupil spending in 2019, either a multitude of school districts nationwide lack state funding needed to address these critical needs, or these funds are being used for other purposes.
Students from disadvantaged backgrounds likely suffered worst of all during the pandemic. Sadly, this is the status quo for the American education system, which has wrestled unsuccessfully with inequities in learning since the days of the little red schoolhouse. Many minority students and children from lower-income brackets have always had to contend with the glaring differences in the quality of their education from those of their peers in higher-income neighborhoods.
Some ideas warrant renewed consideration following the 2020 pandemic lockdowns. One of these is to require elected officials to enroll their children in public school while they serve in office. This “sneakers on the ground” investment in public education from those serving our interests will set an example of how to improve our schools. Often the two-parent households of families of means have one spouse available to donate time and energy to improving the local school. Elected officials whose children attend public school as opposed to expensive, handpicked private schools will be incentivized to invest meaningfully in public education, which will lift all boats – from all income brackets.
Another idea whose time has come is to finally counter the teacher’s union’s claim that charter schools are robbing public schools of enrollment and are designed to take public education out at the knees. Charter schools provide much-needed options for families all over America who seek an educational alternative. One size should not fit all. And the idea of competition between public schools and charters for enrollment is, at least in theory, one that will compel both to fulfill the promise they make to their communities – and it can ideally engender peaceful co-existence.
One further idea is to stop opposing school choice. The Democratic Party has longstanding solidarity with the teacher’s unions, and their shared platform to oppose school choice functions as a kind of defacto segregation, preventing many inner-city students whose public schools may not provide quality education from seeking one elsewhere. This unwittingly contributes to the discrimination against lower-income families and minority neighborhoods against which the left has traditionally stood.
Opening American schools again for the fall is critical to reversing the academic and social-emotional slide our children have suffered and about which the United Nations has cautioned us. This can be achieved by testing all school staff for COVID-19 or Coronavirus antibodies in advance of the first day. Children desperately need a return to normalcy, and we can provide that without drastically limiting their experience of school. At the same time, we should seek to improve public schools with buy-in from our political class. We need to broker agreement between charters and public schools by finding common ground. And finally, we must enact school choice to give families everywhere the freedom to choose where and how their children are educated. It is high time to open schools again after the pandemic and provide opportunities for families seeking to improve their educational lot – it’s the right thing to do.
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