Despite the known harm, schools shut down yet again

As 2022 gets underway, students are sidelined in their learning yet again due to school closures.  According to Burbio's K–12 School Opening Tracker, 5,506 schools nationwide opted not to provide students with in-person learning when schools were set to resume the week of January 3.  With closures primarily occurring in large urban districts, the number of students and families negatively impacted by this latest disruption to education is enormous.

A few of the largest districts keeping their doors shut include Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia.  Additionally, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the nation with roughly 655,000 students, won't allow students and staff to return to campus until January 11, and then only with proof of a negative COVID test.  Chalk up another week of lost learning and supervision.  Newark School District, the second largest in New Jersey, plans to keep its 40,000 students remote through January 14.

Since schools were already closed for the two-week winter break, it made it easy, if not inevitable, for many to delay resuming in-person in the new year.  This flies in the face of the Biden administration's view on the issue, despite its past equivocations.  On December 21, U.S. Department of Education secretary Miguel Cardona opined, "I don't think we should be considering remote options. ... Our students deserve more, not less, and our parents have done enough to help balance school closures the first year of the pandemic."  In surprising fashion (due to its opposition to the teacher union position), on January 5, President Biden also stated, "I believe schools should stay open."  Alas, his involvement on the issue was limited to his verbal statement, as he continued to sit idle as teacher unions call the shots at the expense of students and their families.

In Chicago, roughly 340,000 children and their parents went to bed on January 4, not knowing if school would open in the morning.  A late-night teacher union vote revealed that 73 percent (91 percent by other reports) of teachers favored remote instruction.  The result was a teacher union–staged strike — a strike they planned to continue until January 18.  Adding to the drama, the next morning, the Chicago teachers' union accused Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot of locking teachers out of remote instruction.  As teachers failed to report to work for a second straight day, Lightfoot called the strike an "illegal work stoppage" and described the closed schools as keeping kids hostage. 

In addition to Chicago, teacher union walkouts also occurred in Maryland, New Jersey, and California.

Some are fighting back.  Arizona's Governor Doug Ducey has stayed two steps ahead of union tactics.  On January 4, Ducey announced, "We're making sure in-person learning remains an option for all Arizona families and students. ... With the new Open for Learning Recovery Benefit program, if a school closes for even one day, students and families who meet the income requirements will have access to instruction that best meets their needs.  It funds up to $7,000 for needs related to Arizona Department of Economic Security approved child care, school-coordinated transportation, online tutoring and school tuition."  In stark contrast to the philosophy of teacher unions, Ducey underscored that "parents have a choice — always."

Currently, public schools continue to receive taxpayer funding regardless of whether they offer in-person learning, remote instruction, or no learning at all.  Not surprisingly, 2020 data indicated that the school districts with the strongest teacher unions were less likely to open for in-person learning.  Teacher unions seem keenly aware that keeping schools closed gives them leverage as they exercise their power to achieve their political and economic demands.

Nearly two years into the coronavirus pandemic, the public is becoming more and more aware of the harm to our students' mental well-being, development, and education caused by ongoing school closures.  Parents too are afflicted with stress and negative financial impacts (to say nothing about the negative impacts on employers).  The continued disruptions must end.  We need more courageous leaders like Gov. Ducey to creatively block teacher unions' power grabs and empower parents, so the promise of education can be fulfilled — without excuse.

Dr. Keri D. Ingraham is a fellow at the Discovery Institute and director of the Institute's American Center for Transforming Education.

Image: Pixabay.

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