School 'learning loss' during COVID leads to political blame game

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WASHINGTON — Precipitous drops in the math and reading standardized scores of U.S. 9-year-olds during two years of pandemic schooling have set off a new round of recrimination over remote learning, a persistently contentious issue that could motivate voters in the November midterm elections.

The dispiriting findings, which come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as “the nation’s report card,” were made public last week, putting in stark relief the anxieties of educators, parents and students.

In all, American 9-year-olds lost 20 years of progress, with an especially steep 13-point decline for Black children in mathematics. Students who did best were those who had comfortable, quiet home settings with reliable Internet connections.

An elementary school student attends class via laptop computer
An elementary school student attends class via laptop computer. (Getty)

“Virtual learning is a disaster,” wrote the high-profile education reformer Diane Ravitch on her blog after the test scores were released by the National Center for Education Statistics last Thursday.

Politicians and pundits quickly reactivated long-held opinions about who was at fault: teachers unions, Republicans, parents, liberals. The already rancorous national conversation about the role of schools in American society seemed to reach a new level of discord.

“The blame lies with the state and federal leaders who locked people down and kept kids out of school for as long as possible,” said Bryan Griffin, press secretary for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was demonized — and celebrated — for opening schools when few other governors were willing to do so.

“There’s a very big diffusion of responsibility,” says Anya Kamenetz, an education reporter and author of “The Stolen Year,” a chronicle of COVID schooling. In an interview with Yahoo News, Kamenetz cautioned against the simple partisan narratives that dominate Twitter and cable news.

"Learning loss is registering all over the world," she said, with few exceptions across the developed world, with perhaps the most notable being Sweden.

“Zoom school” was seen as a public health necessity in early 2020, when so little was known about how the virus spread. But schools remained closed even as bars and restaurants reopened. In many parts of the country, they stayed close despite the publication of studies showing that children tended to not get seriously sick from the coronavirus, and that schools were not sites of significant viral transmission.

Burlington High School
An empty hallway at Burlington High School in Burlington, Vt., March 16, 2021. (Erin Clark/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The NAEP results are hardly the first warning sign that closing schools carried enormous consequences; in late 2021, a group of researchers led by Brown University economist Emily Oster found “highly significant” learning loss stemming from remote schooling.

But because NAEP is held in especially high regard by both educators and politicians, its results are all but impossible to ignore — and the finger-pointing impossible to avoid. Fittingly, Democrats and Republicans blamed each other for not opening schools quickly enough, a reflection of how unsettled education remains as students begin their third year of pandemic-era schooling.

For Democrats, the test scores are little more than yet another indictment of then-President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic, which frequently involved minimizing the dangers posed by the virus and politicizing precautions like face masks. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement that “the prior Administration’s mismanagement of the pandemic” was responsible for the NAEP results.

He and other officials in the Biden administration rushed to note that within six months of Biden entering the Oval Office, nearly all schools across the United States had opened. And many of the most cautious districts managed to stay open when the Delta variant arrived in the fall of 2021.

In recent days, the White House has also cited the $130 billion devoted to schools in the coronavirus relief package that President Biden proposed, and Congress passed, in the first weeks of his presidency. The relief package did not receive any Republican backing in either the House or Senate on the grounds that the $1.9 trillion bill contained wasteful spending programs unrelated to the pandemic. “We had to do this on our own,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a press briefing hours after the test scores were published. “We must repair the damage that was done by the last administration,” she added.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre at a briefing last week. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

Republicans, on the other hand, blame the NAEP scores on Democrats, whom they deemed overly cautious on COVID-19 and too timid to take on the powerful teachers unions that in some cases argued to keep schools closed. They point to the few children who have died from the coronavirus as evidence that closures were never justified.

“Blame for catastrophic learning loss — ESPECIALLY in Black and Brown communities — due to COVID lockdowns is ENTIRELY at the feet of Democrat politicians and teachers' unions,” Former Rep. Nan Hayworth wrote on Twitter. “THEY are America’s vile Systemic Racists.”

The truth, unsurprisingly, is somewhat more complex, reflecting both competing political priorities and the fractured, decentralized state of American education. Governors and mayors have outsized roles in managing schools, while state health and education departments also play major roles. Presidents are limited in their powers to open a school, or mandate masks.

“There is no one answer here,” Oster told Yahoo News of the causes behind the low NAEP scores. “School disruptions are likely to be a huge part of it. It is hard to separate full-on remote learning closures from the broader set of disruptions. Likely both played a role.”

Trump made school reopening an issue throughout the summer of 2020. On July 7 of that year, he held a summit at the White House to push for a full fall reopening. Not present were any public school educators, nor the powerful teachers unions that represent them. And though Trump was vehement about schools opening, he did not suggest how they might do so.

"They didn't care about safety," Randi Weingarten, head of the powerful American Federation of Teachers, recently told Yahoo News. "If you knew anybody who got sick at the beginning, you understood the pandemic was very serious." Like most Democrats, she blames Trumps for turning schools, like masks, into a political wedge issue.

Having already emerged as a vociferous opponent of lockdowns, DeSantis also entered the fray, calling on teachers to emulate the bravery of the Navy SEALs who killed terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden. Teachers and political opponents called his plan foolhardy and dangerous.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Two years later, however, the move appears to have been largely justified. “Gov. DeSantis led the nation by being the first to guarantee full in-person schooling, which is vital to a successful education,” his press secretary Griffin told Yahoo News in an email. “While children across the country suffered from irresponsible lockdowns, the governor’s leadership in returning kids to school as soon as possible resulted in the minimization of any potential learning loss.”

Although many teachers and parents said they wanted to return to the classroom in the fall of 2020, caution continued to prevail in most blue states. National leaders like Weingarten continued to urge caution, endorsing teacher “safety strikes.” Becky Pringle, Weingarten’s counterpart at the National Education Association, another powerful union, predicted in the fall of 2020 that 50,000 children would die if schools reopened completely, a wildly inflated figure.

There were exceptions. The fall of 2020 saw schools reopen for traditional instruction in Connecticut, where Cardona was then the state superintendent. In New York City, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio pushed for reopening too, though he only partially succeeded.

Yet schools remained closed in California, as well as in other Democratic redoubts like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and the suburbs of New Jersey and northern Virginia, where affluent parents grew increasingly frustrated with remote learning. On the other hand, many Black and brown parents said they felt safer with their children learning from home.

Teenage boy doing schoolwork at home
A student works on his school assignments from home. (Getty Images)

Biden promised to open schools as president, but struggled with how to do so without alienating the teachers unions that have supported him for decades. He called for all schools to reopen within the first 100 days of his administration, a deadline some found lacking in urgency. Nor did his administration say what it meant for a school to be “open,” with then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki suggesting that one day per week of in-person instruction would satisfy the president’s goal.

Although Trump was no longer in office, and vaccines were becoming widely available, unions seemed only to harden their opposition to returning to the classroom.

“I think it’s simplistic,” Kamenetz says of blaming the unions for the persistence of remote learning well into 2021. They’re not all-powerful.” Still, some unions’ fiery rhetoric seemed at times to play into their opponents hands, as when the Chicago Teachers Union tweeted that the “push to reopen schools is rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny.” The message was deleted, but it reinforced the idea that the unions were taking an absolutist approach against in-person education.

In Los Angeles, union leader Cecily Myart-Cruz offered that there’s “no such thing as learning loss," while the NEA’s Pringle argued earlier this year that standardized tests were “biased” and “flawed,” and therefore not an accurate measure of what students have and have not learned.

Even after most schools finally reopened for in-person instruction, the bitterness of remote learning would linger. In the fall of 2021, political neophyte Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia gubernatorial race, using frustration over remote learning to attract moderate and even liberal voters. “That was the biggest referendum I have ever seen on the fear-based response of the Democrats and school closures,” Dr. Monica Gandhi, a University of California at San Francisco infectious disease specialist and a staunch advocate of school reopening, told Yahoo News at the time.

A boy takes a break from e-learning during the pandemic
A boy takes a break from e-learning during the pandemic. (Getty Images)

Controversies over remote learning morphed into debates over students should have to wear masks in schools or show proof of vaccination. Conservative activists like Christopher Rufo harnessed parents’ frustration into a movement that sought control over how schools handle matters of sexuality and race.

But while those remain potent issues, the question of learning loss remains salient for many parents. Not only that, but it confronts them with the question of whether the same schools that oversaw those losses can now make the necessary gains. Kamenetz, the education reporter, points to promising intensive tutoring programs in Tennessee, but it is not clear how widely that model has been replicated around the nation.

Pringle, of the NEA, told Yahoo News that social disparities were to blame. “The gaps between the haves and the have-nots in this nation are on stark display with these NAEP test scores,” she said in a statement emailed by a press representative for the union.

The AFT’s Weingarten responded to the NAEP results by stressing learning recovery, an effort that has been complicated by the national teacher shortage. “These scores reiterate the vital importance of this school year to help students recover and thrive,” she said in a statement of her own. “This is a year to accelerate learning by rebuilding relationships, focusing on the basics and investing in our public schools.”

Frayed trust and lingering frustration could complicate that work. “Students will need creative solutions to come back from this damage,” the conservative author and northern Virginia parent Mary Katharine Ham argued in the Daily Beast.

Educators maintain that they cannot be blamed for the ravaged of the pandemic, which no segment of society fully escaped.

"We did the best we could," Weingarten told Yahoo News.