This week marks the third anniversary of school closures and lockdowns as a part of the Covid-19 mitigation strategies. 

On March 13, 2020, when Governor Wolf announced the mandatory closing of all schools across the commonwealth for two weeks, I was stunned and dismayed. My first thought was that two weeks was just the tip of the iceberg, and unfortunately, my instincts were correct.

Prior to Covid, I was not a highly political person. I voted in every primary and general election, almost exclusively for Democratic candidates. I often held strong opinions, but generally did not discuss them publicly. However, when Governor Wolf closed schools and businesses for months, I realized the only way to get children back in school was through the political process. 

On April 11, 2020, I wrote my first letter to Wolf after he announced that schools would stay closed for the remainder of the school year. In that letter, I predicted that domestic violence would skyrocket and that our most vulnerable children would suffer irreparable consequences. As a professional who spent her career advocating on behalf of at-risk children and families, particularly those of low-income and minority backgrounds, I knew the devastating toll that school closures would take on them.

“I implore you to reconsider your decisions and to start looking at alternative options and to communicate that process in a more meaningful, direct, and transparent way. In my opinion, the unintended consequences of your poor policy decisions now outweigh any benefits that have been realized. I am fully prepared to take the risk of contracting the virus to salvage our inalienable rights granted by the constitution. As a long-standing Democratic voter, I can promise you that I will not continue voting Democratic if you continue on your current path.”

Unintended Consequences

My predictions about the unintended consequences were not only correct, they were worse than I imagined. While I was imploring my school district and elected officials to re-open schools, my friends and neighbors called me selfish and irresponsible. They told me I wanted people to die. Those who once respected my advocacy work now called me a racist. All this because I believed that every child who wanted to be in school should have that opportunity.

Starting last year, the mainstream media finally began to cover the disastrous impacts of school closures on children, including significant learning loss, lower graduation rates, increased criminal activity, higher dropout rates, increased mental health issues, increased drug use, and changes to our children’s brains.

Learning loss is real despite many claims to the contrary. In 2021, Forbes published an article with the headline, “The ridiculousness of learning loss.” The Los Angeles teachers’ union leader contended that “there’s no such thing as learning loss.” Yet in 2022, the results were clear. Our children experienced significant academic decline, and those students who were already behind before the closures, were exponentially further behind than their peers.

Regardless of the divergent views of standardized tests, they are the only measure available right now to accurately assess learning loss. And the tests definitely show the losses encountered by our children. One study quantified the losses further, “…researchers found that the erosion of math skills experienced by America’s eighth graders may lead to hundreds of billions of dollars in lost earnings over the coming decades. Other important life trends, including high school graduation, college enrollment, and criminal arrests, are also likely to be adversely affected by years of thwarted schooling.”

While the learning loss is significant and consequential, it is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of outcomes for our children related to school closures. The overwhelming increase in mental health issues, including depression, suicidal ideations, obesity, and eating disorders is staggering. Our elected officials and medical professionals frightened our children irrationally with mandates and threats. Their decisions and actions isolated adolescents and created the largest mental health crisis our country has ever witnessed.

In some cases, the mental health issues were further exacerbated by drug use and overdoses. Our children were forced to stay at home, locked in their rooms. Schools, playgrounds, churches, community centers were all closed. There were no sports or activities. We took away everything that brought our children joy, and more importantly, we took away their hope. They had nothing to look forward to as politicians and policy makers droned on about the greater good and the essential need for extended mitigation measures. It should come as no surprise that some adolescents turned to drugs to escape the nightmare they were living.

For those children living with abusive family members, the closures and lockdowns were intolerable. Child abuse reached record highs during the closures, and those numbers are based on the cases that were reported. Imagine how many incidents were not reported because teachers, who are mandated reporters and often the first to notice signs of abuse, were not seeing their students.

The trauma for some children was so extreme that it actually resulted in brain changes. The chronic stress and adversity as a result of closures and lockdowns caused accelerated brain maturation and a thinning of cortex tissues. Accelerated brain maturation is related to mental illness and potentially long-term chronic health issues. Children who experience significant trauma and adverse childhood events are at even higher risk for these outcomes. No one knows whether these neurological changes are permanent. 

Schools Reopen

When schools finally reopened, in some instances a full year later, students returned to a dystopian environment akin to 1984. Most districts utilized a “hybrid” model where half the students attended schools for two days, and the other half attended the other two days. The middle day was used for “deep cleaning.” And every child was forced to wear a mask. Some teachers showed up in full PPE (personal protective equipment). Administrators consistently chastised students to remain six feet apart. There were signs all over the schools with messages of “staying safe” and “maintaining social distance.” At some high schools, students were required to scan QR codes in the cafeteria, despite sitting six feet apart, in order to maintain records for contact tracing. For a full year after schools reopened, many students found themselves back at home under “quarantine” because they came in “close contact” with someone who tested positive for Covid.

This alien environment continued to instill fear and distrust in our children. Three years later, the research shows that none of these extreme mitigation measures were effective or saved lives. Even the most controversial intervention of mask-wearing has no scientific evidence to support its efficacy.

We subjected our children to measures that were not effective and, in the process, caused many of them irreparable harm. It remains to be seen whether our children will recover from the learning loss, mental health and substance abuse issues, and the myriad of other issues that accompanied school closures. Will our children grow into fearful, distrustful adults as a result of their experiences? Will they become productive members of society, earning enough money to support themselves? Do our children now have hope for their future?

What if?

I often wonder what would be different today if our elected officials and school administrators had fully reopened schools in the Fall of 2020. Based on my interactions with parents all over the country, my hypothesis is that parents would have returned to work when their children went back to school, and most, including myself, would have resumed a “business as usual” mentality. Prior to school closures, I thought my school district was doing a good job in terms of educating my children. I believed that they had good intentions and truly cared about the students and teachers. They acted in a way that respected my rights as a parent and viewed me as a partner in my children’s education. 

Yet, schools did not open in Fall 2020 for most districts in the region, and parents were pushed to their breaking points as we watched our children fall apart in front of our eyes. When the closures could no longer be blamed on Wolf, the school boards and superintendents were on the hot seat to answer questions as to why they were not reopening schools. Relationships became adversarial.

For the first time in my 30-year advocacy career, I was accused of racial misappropriation for advocating on behalf of the minority students in my district because they were suffering the most from extended school closures. At a meeting with our superintendent, DEI director, and several board members, I was told that I could not advocate on behalf of minority students because I was not a minority. Reflecting on that meeting, I realize now that it was a turning point both for me personally and also a preview of the issues to come.

I believe that the unintended consequences described are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of long-term effects on our children and our schools. There are many issues occurring in our schools across the region, including violence, substance abuse, apathy, and hatred. Fights amongst students in middle and high schools abound. Bathrooms are filled with students vaping both legal and illegal substances. Some students are apathetic about their classes and general appearance and arrive at school dressed in the pajama pants that they slept in, despite dress codes that do prohibit wearing pajamas. Other students and staff are exposed to threats, hatred, and bullying based on race or gender.

Rise of equity

Over the last three years, districts have placed a large emphasis on equity, with an initial focus primarily on race. In the midst of lockdowns, the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum and most districts in the region made a statement in support of the organization and pledged their commitment to equity and antiracism

The term anti-racism was popularized by Ibram X Kendi, author of the award-winning book, How to be an Antiracist. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) enacted a resolution in 2022 “to promote policies that protect educators who teach anti-racism…..”

According to Kendi, “If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.” He further states, “To love capitalism is to end up loving racism. To love racism is to end up loving capitalism.” 

I find it paradoxical that school districts and the national teachers’ unions fully support Kendi’s sentiments. If districts and unions truly believe that capitalism is racist, why do they have a salary scale for teachers based on degree and experience? Clearly, these are capitalist concepts, and therefore — according to Kendi — racist.

Contrast Kendi’s perspective with John McWhorter, author, linguist, and professor at Columbia University, who describes himself as a black American. In his book, Woke Racism, he shares his views on racism and the elite who have hijacked real efforts to overcome racism in America. He suggests three strategies for eradicating racism in our country. “There should be no war on drugs; society should get behind teaching everybody to read the right way; and we should make solid vocational training as easy to obtain as a college education.” (page 149) Interestingly, two of his three strategies are education initiatives, including proper reading instruction and vocational training.

Equity related to gender 

Prior to school closures, most local districts developed a plan or policy for equity and cultural competency. They were focused primarily on race and ethnicity and rarely included metrics on academic outcomes for students. Most of the plans set goals for hiring different staff, including culturally responsive teaching materials, and creating an “equitable” climate. These plans developed prior to Covid did not include any references to gender or LGBT students.

Yet now, gender identity is one of the biggest issues in schools.

I spoke with a local school psychologist who asked to remain anonymous, and he told me that over the course of 20 years prior to Covid, he would see one to two students who identified differently from their birth gender. When returning to the classroom post-Covid, that number rose exponentially to about 20-25 percent of all kids, and now has come back down to closer to 5 percent.

What changed when schools closed that exponentially increased the number of adolescents who identified differently from their birth gender?

The role of the teachers’ union

The NEA and the AFT, the largest national teachers’ unions, not only supported extended school closures but called for them early on. While schools were closed, students spent inordinate amounts of time on screens and on the internet. Many were exposed to content that they had never previously seen.

These national unions and their state and local counterparts are pushing an agenda that has nothing to do with supporting teachers or students. A teacher who attended the NEA annual conference last year noted that the organization is not focused on teaching, learning, and student outcomes. “Its priorities were apparent, because of the 110 motions discussed and voted on, only four remotely addressed student academic achievement. Those four dealt with student financial literacy and resources for English learners and language acquisition.”

Despite the fact that a leading black American professor has detailed a path to eradicate racism through reading instruction and vocational training, the unions nor the majority of school districts actually focus on these initiatives. Instead, the unions are determined to expose children to questionable content that many parents find objectionable.

Last year, the NEA held an LGBT caucus that included badges for participants with a QR code for a “Queering Sex-Ed” document that contains graphic sex acts that LGBT students might engage in. They also published a two-page pronoun guide. Why are these topics so vitally important to the NEA? Why isn’t academic excellence at least equally as important?

These national, state, and local unions have a political agenda that has very little to do with teachers and student outcomes. Their actions and agenda do not represent the hard-working teachers who pay their salaries. They should not spend time nor their union member dues on political agendas that seek to divide our children and country or expose them to radical concepts and inappropriate material. Children of every gender and race deserve equal respect and consideration, and they are also entitled to an education free from discriminatory actions and exposure to questionable content. Supporting LGBT students should be mutually exclusive from encouraging students to explore alternative gender identities.

Amidst the dire consequences related to school closures, the unions and their bosses, Randi Weingarten and Rebecca Pringle, should be focused on ensuring that every child has the opportunity to recover from years of learning loss and supporting teachers in that endeavor. Sadly, Weingarten disagreed when she attempted to rewrite history and requested a covid amnesty.

If one group should be held responsible for the debacle of school closures and their consequences, it is the national teachers’ unions. Our children deserve schools that will teach them to read, prepare them for college or a career in a safe environment free from fights, riots, and drugs. Our teachers deserve to feel respected and safe at work. These are the agendas that the unions should be focused on, but they never will. These groups are to blame for the failings of our public education system, and they must be held accountable. Disbanding these organizations and their political agendas may well be our only hope to salvage public education.

Beth Ann Rosica resides in West Chester, has a Ph.D. in Education, and has dedicated her career advocating on behalf of at-risk children and families.

3 thoughts on “Beth Ann Rosica: At the third anniversary of school closures, public education is in shambles”

  1. Yes, well said! The cure will net come from the education establishment, if you are familiar with Eric Hoffer’s description of the stages of unionism: (1) A Cause, morphing into (2) A Business and (3) morphing into a Racket, it becomes clear we are in the 3rd stage. John McWhorter’s solution would be wonderful, but where would you find politicians, school boards and teachers unions to go along with it? Perhaps now the only hope is home schooling and/or private schools.

  2. Unfortunately the facts don’t care about this author’s hysterics or political agenda. Objectively ranking states by public school tells a very different story. In fact, with a few exceptions, it almost looks like a map of the last election!

    Let’s look for instance at OK where a teacher was just forced out for mentioning the existence of a public library thanks to draconian laws passed by their right wing legislature. Also the first state to legally censor teachers from mentioning homosexuality (way back in 1987, decades before this bogus “woke scare”). It’s ranked 45th.

    Let’s look at Texas where a blacklist of books (including math books!) was made to combat whatever they consider “woke” and where the radical right-wing state government is now taking control of the largest local school district despite the loud opposition of local residents. It’s 4 spots BELOW PA.

    Arkansas, where a teacher was forced to pull a 230 year old poem by Mary Wollstonecraft from her class (which has been taught in American schools since its founding but now I guess it’s too “woke”), is 13 spots below PA.

    Now let’s look at the top 3 states: MA, CT, and NJ. These are among the most solid blue states in the country!

    Mainly looking at this but choose whichever ranking you want if you’re apt to dismiss WalletHub as “woke” (lol).

    “Metrics included high school graduation rate among low-income students, math and reading scores, median SAT and ACT scores, pupil-teach ratio, the share of armed students, number of school shootings between 2000 and June 2020 bullying incidence rate, and more.”

    1. Beth Ann creates her own reality. “Students were locked in their rooms.”
      That’s funny, I remember my two kids doing art projects, playing outside, going to nature preserves, reading, cooking together . . . some people chose to make the best of a bad situation and others choose to endlessly blame and complain. And my kids have shown zero learning loss.
      Since we’ll never be able to prove a negative, we’ll never know how many lives were saved by the shutdowns. But it’s super easy for Beth to Monday morning quarterback the pandemic.

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