The only thing we have to fear is … complacency

With the nation at the peak of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural address in 1933. The 1,883-word, 20-minute speech is best known for Roosevelt’s famously pointed reference to “fear itself” in one of its first lines.

With benefit of hindsight, it’s now clear that the decision to close schools in the spring of 2020 was unwise, especially in the elementary grades.

We now know that young children are more likely to die from the flu than from COVID-19. At this point, not only have schools around the world managed to safely reopen using a variety of precautions, but many school systems never closed at all.

The dangers of COVID-19 in schools are real and potentially deadly but can be successfully mitigated. The costs of lockdowns, however, have only begun to be measured, and we have no plan to reverse them.

Students in kindergarten through third grade are especially vulnerable to long-term harm from COVID disruption. This is the developmental stage at which students learn to read, and the neurology of this process is similar to that of learning a foreign language: You either do it early or else struggle to do it more than poorly. Formative assessment data from the fall 2020 has begun to trickle in, and the news is predictably bad, with students who were already struggling suffering the most.

Then there are the mental health implications to consider. A recent study of young adults by Harvard Medical School researchers and others found an alarming increase in depression and anxiety in young adults:

For example, an analysis of an epidemiologic study from 2013 and 2014 found 3.4% of adults reported these (suicidal) thoughts. The rates seen in May were especially high among young adults, at 32.2% — that is, nearly ten-fold greater than estimates from the older study. (Results from a smaller survey in June of 18- through 24-year-olds were similar, reporting a rate of roughly 26%.) In subsequent study waves, this prevalence has increased modestly, reaching 36.9% in October.

“It is amazing that eight months into this pandemic that we are still prioritizing bars and restaurants and gyms and shutting down schools,” Kathleen Porter-Magee stated in a recent interview, noting the demonstrated ability of schools to reopen safely. More amazing still to see groups like the Florida Education Association’s ultimately unsuccessful legal effort to deny families in-person education as an option.

Public schools have always received approximately the same level of resources whether they actually teach students crucial academic knowledge or not. Powerful special interests want to keep things this way, and not coincidentally oppose parental choice policies allowing unhappy parents to seek satisfaction elsewhere.

The effort to keep schools closed follows the same trajectory: Teacher unions apparently feel entitled to your tax dollars whether they provide either education or custodial care. In some places, the unions not only want to mandate virtual instruction; they also have limited the amount of it.

So, parents, the good news is that the pandemic has been clarifying. The priorities of the system stand revealed. You should make your plans accordingly, because those priorities were in place before COVID-19 and will remain long after a vaccine arrives.