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Disappointed lonely kid wearing mask for protection of corona virus spread on a closed empty park
Photo by Daniel CHETRONI on Adobe Stock

The Bottom Line Coronavirus Deadly Effect on K-12 Student Learning — Not Student Health

We are pleased to announce the recent appointment of Dr. Keri D. Ingraham as a Discovery Institute Fellow and Director of our American Center for Transforming Education. Please join us in welcoming Dr. Ingraham. I invite you to read her article and view Dr. Ingraham’s Professional Biography.

Steve Buri, President of Discovery Institute

The United States spends more than $700 billion annually on K-12 education – more than any other country – with roughly 80 percent of the spending allocated to teacher and staff salaries and benefits. That’s $560 billion that taxpayers spend each school year for public school personnel!

Yet with all we spend on K-12 education, schools were among the first to close their doors for COVID-19 last spring. And while other industries have reopened, the vast majority of K-12 public schools across the U.S. deem themselves unable to do so safely. They assert it would put teachers’ and students’ lives at risk. The chant, “kids’ lives matter” by Orange County, California, teachers in mid-July was nothing short of a false narrative. At the time, scientific data indicated the virus was having little effect on children, and research was revealing children were not high carriers nor spreaders of the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nationwide 30 children under the age of 15 died from COVID-19 as of mid-July as contrasted by 166 children under the age of 17 who died from the flu during the 2019-2020 flu season.

At the time of the chanting and planning for school campuses to remain closed, the California Department of Public Health data revealed that among California’s 8.9 million K-12 students under the age of 18, there was not one documented COVID-19 death. Not one. So why the “kids’ lives matter” mantra?

Fast forward to this past week. As of September 9, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate a total of 88 deaths linked to COVID-19 among the 18,631 total deaths for those under the age of 18 since February 1. Many of these 88 children had underlying medical conditions. Any childhood death is tragic but should the overwhelming majority of public schools across the nation remain closed when on average fewer than two children per state have died from COVID-19 to date, and COVID-19 has been attributed as a cause to only four-tenths of one percent of the deaths of children under the age of 18 over the past seven months?

Historically, teachers have been hailed as heroes, difference-makers in the lives of their students. Teaching is a noble profession, for our nation’s future depends on students who are prepared to enter the workforce and contribute to society as productive, law-abiding citizens. However, the resounding response, fueled by the powerful teacher unions, from teachers in a time of national crisis has been it’s not safe, it’s too dangerous, you can’t force us back into schools. The teacher unions have turned these heroes into self-asserting fearful victims.

Why would a teacher play puppet to the union? Without a doubt, because the union negotiates their contracts and demands more pay and better benefits on their behalf year after year. As a result of this link to their purse strings, unions dictate teachers’ collective response.

We must not forget public school teachers are ultimately government employees, as are military, firefighters, and police. One may counter that potential danger is part of the job description for first-responders. But during this pandemic, we have deemed a vast array of jobs as “essential” — grocery store employees, truck drivers, information technology personnel, manufacturing workers, and more. Aren’t K-12 teachers every bit as essential?

Some jobs cannot effectively be completed from home, and K-12 teaching in a traditional face-to-face classroom is one of them. The quick, make-shift conversion to online learning last spring, and again for this fall, has not served the vast majority of students’ learning needs well. The lack of hands-on learning and social interaction implications cannot be underestimated. Additionally, many students are not proficient with the skills of self-efficacy and autonomous learning necessary for online learning success. Furthermore, schools moving only to provide distance learning has caused grave hardship for families who rely on supervision and school-provided meals for their students during the school day.

For five consecutive academic years, 2014-2019, leading up to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, public education has increased its spending per student according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Spending figures per student range dramatically among states from approximately $7,000-23,000, with an average of $15,000. Yet U.S. educational performance has remained poor as compared by other developed nations. According to 2020 data from World Population Review, U.S. education falls 26th overall, with academic scores placing a pitiful 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math despite leading the world in education spending.

The pandemic has exacerbated these education deficiencies. The extent of the damage has not been fully assessed, since students are not back in classrooms and have not been tested. But it is estimated that on average, traditional public school students (not charter nor private school students) have lost half a year of learning, if not more. This is attributed to several factors including some students not having a device or the needed internet access, others not logging in regularly to complete the schoolwork, lack of academic support for struggling students, and schools not providing robust, meaningful learning for the same duration of time that students receive in face-to-face classrooms.

In addition to learning loss, financial implications for our economy from school closures are astronomical and continue to climb daily. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released a report this month projecting the long-term U.S. economic loss upwards of $14.2 trillion over the next 80 years from school closures to-date.

Some parents are turning toward learning pods where an adult oversees the learning for a small group of children generally of similar ages for the needed student supervision and learning support while schools remain physically closed. But most parents cannot afford this alternative. Furthermore, school district leaders have been fighting against their teachers serving families through these pod avenues — they assert that the achievement gap between affluent and poor students will widen as a result. They have gone as far as to threaten teachers with termination should they take on a pod position, even if it is outside of their school day online teaching responsibilities.

Why not advocate and support any possible solution for teachers to serve families during this time? Yes, the achievement gap will widen for those without the needed finances for these expensive pod learning options, but should the option be taken away from those who can afford it? If the goal is student learning, we need to foster creative means to get as many students as possible quality learning opportunities.

Instead of chanting, “kids’ lives matter,” let’s demonstrate our passionate commitment to students by reopening our face-to-face classrooms in K-12 schools. This must be a matter of urgency because the current status and future of our kids’ lives matter.

Keri D. Ingraham

Senior Fellow and Director, American Center for Transforming Education
Dr. Keri D. Ingraham is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and Director of the Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education. She is also a Senior Fellow at Independent Women’s Forum. Dr. Ingraham has been a guest on Fox News multiple times. Her articles have been published by The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, The Federalist, Real Clear Education, The Washington Times, The Epoch Times, Washington Examiner, National Review, The American Spectator, Daily Caller, The Seattle Times, Puget Sound Business Journal, The Daily Signal, and a host of other media outlets. Fox News has featured her work. Prior to joining Discovery Institute, she spent nearly two decades leading within the field of education as a national consultant, requested conference speaker, head of school, virtual and hybrid academy director, administrator, classroom teacher, and athletic coach. She authored multiple chapters for the book, Sketching a New Conservative Education Agenda, published in 2022. In 2019, she was invited as a contributing author for the book, MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education and co-authored “From Gutenberg to 5G.” Dr. Ingraham was awarded the George W. Selig Doctoral Fellowship in 2013. The following year she received the “World Changer in the Field of Education” award from Regent University.
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