School Closures Were a Failed Policy

America's pandemic learning losses are real. We need to see that reality clearly to do better next time.

School desk with a sign that says "Sorry we're closed" hanging from the chair.
Getty; The Atlantic

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On Monday, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released its first national “report card” since the beginning of the pandemic. The unmistakable conclusion: Student achievement plummeted during COVID. The survey of fourth and eighth graders found that math scores fell in nearly every state. No state showed significant improvements in reading. The lowest-performing students saw the largest declines in achievement.

So my follow-up question is: How much of this historic decline was the direct result of school closures?

I’ll begin to answer this extremely fraught question by stating the obvious: School closures were not the sole pandemic disruption to kids’ lives that might explain a decline in achievement. Students also suffered from sick and absent teachers, the death or severe illness of parents and other family members, and just a general loss of focus during a stressful period.

Several mainstream news organizations took pains to say that the latest NAEP study offered only murky evidence that school closures were the biggest culprit. For example, Texas opened its schools relatively early but still saw declines in math scores in line with the national average. California opened its schools relatively late, and its students’ scores declined less than the national average. According to one school-tracking site, Los Angeles schools stayed closed longer than those almost anywhere else, and it showed surprising gains in eighth-grade reading proficiency. (The district’s superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, credited “strong attendance for online courses and summer classes,” according to The Wall Street Journal.)

But other studies have established a clearer connection between school closures and learning loss. A 2022 paper published by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research concluded that the shift to remote or hybrid school during the pandemic “had profound consequences for student achievement.” Using testing data from more than 2 million students in 10,000 schools across the country, a team of researchers from CALDER, the Northwest Evaluation Association, Harvard, and Dartmouth College found that learning gaps in math “did not widen in areas that remained in-person.” But they found that, especially in high-poverty areas, students lost more ground the longer they were remote. “If the achievement losses become permanent,” they wrote in their conclusion, “there will be major implications for future earnings, racial equity and income inequality.”

A 2022 Ohio State University study of declines in student achievement from March 2020 to spring 2021 came to a similar conclusion. Districts with fully remote instruction saw declines in test scores “up to three times greater than districts that had in-person instruction for the majority of the school year,” the researchers wrote. Once again, the declines were particularly stark for lower-achieving and minority students. Finally, a forthcoming paper from several economists, including the Atlantic contributor Emily Oster, finds that in-person learning softened the blow of the pandemic on achievement scores. Comparing students within commuting zones, those who attended school fully in person saw smaller declines in pass rates on standardized tests than those who went remote. Once again, the penalty for moving away from in-person learning was greatest “for districts with larger populations of Black students.”

Advocates of school closures make the case that in the fog of pandemic, these policies were made to save lives. Doing the brute utilitarian math of death versus learning, one might argue that a decline in test scores was a fair price to pay for avoiding deaths.

But school closures were not a universal response to the pandemic. Schools remained open in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy in late 2020 and early 2021. (Some European schools were later closed briefly during the height of the Omicron wave.) Compared with their counterparts in the U.S., European policy makers seemed to place more faith in reports that schoolchildren did not play a major role in community transmission, and in evidence from Ireland, Singapore, Norway, Israel, South Korea, and North Carolina that young children were less likely than adults to get severely sick from COVID.

Opponents of school closures like to lay the blame at the feet of Washington bureaucrats such as Anthony Fauci. I personally wish that Fauci had been much clearer about the relative risk of COVID to children and the wackiness of cities that opted to open bars while they kept their schools closed. But remote learning was a surprisingly popular policy that never polled as horribly as its critics wanted it to. An Axios poll of roughly 2,000 parents in January 2022 found that a majority still said that “schools should move to remote learning to prevent COVID exposure.” Other polls have shown that low-income and minority parents were the most likely to support remote learning. Black and Latino parents were less likely than white parents to say that schools should re-open in the first year of the pandemic. According to one CDC survey, more than 80 percent of Latino parents in 2020 said they would prefer to homeschool their children until a vaccine is available.

Now for the good news: Although learning loss is terrible, not all bad things are permanently bad. According to the latest COVID-19 School Data Hub report, Mississippi students have completely recovered in their reading scores, and an Ohio study found that the current pace of recovery in reading would soon eliminate that state’s learning loss. Matt Barnum, an education writer with Chalkbeat, reported that younger elementary-school students across the country have made up ground in the past year; however, older students are recovering more slowly, and gaps by students’ race and family income are still larger than before the pandemic.

We can’t change the past. But we can learn from it. Democrats’ disproportionate support for school closures was very likely an unforced error that has contributed to worse achievement gaps between rich kids and poor kids, and that has set children back several years in math classes in which they were already struggling to demonstrate proficiency. I believe the school closures were a mistake, not only because of their direct effects on achievement but also because of the message they’ve sent about the blue cities and states where closures were concentrated. To steal a vibe from Matthew Yglesias: Democrats shouldn’t just want to be the party of government. They should want to be the party of government that actually works. With little evidence that school closures saved lives and ample evidence that they hurt kids, this is a policy that failed. To make government work better next time, we have to see reality clearly.

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