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October 15, 2021

In Brief: It’s Time to Face the Facts on School Closings

The prevalence of remote learning in schools educating our most vulnerable students was no accident.

Looking back over all the damage done to children over the last year via pandemic response is important for evaluating how to move forward. Noah Benjamin-Pollak and Joshua Coval, both of Harvard Business School, explain what happened.

If you were a school superintendent considering whether to keep your district open in-person or move to online, how would you decide? Most people would suggest you look at COVID-19 case numbers in your community. Perhaps you would consider the vaccination rate, and if you had students with auto-immune disorders or other risk factors, maybe you would consider that. Most Americans would find these sorts of considerations reasonable.

As it turned out, this was far from what happened in American schools last year. An analysis of school-closing data on the nation’s 150 largest school districts reveals something entirely different. Rather than the progress of the disease in a local community, the most important predictor of remote schooling was a school district’s historical propensity to prioritize the interests of its teachers over the competing interests of its students.

Benjamin-Pollak and Coval reviewed loads of data regarding school closures over the last 18 months, and that factor was prevalent. Districts that scored high on factors like “prioritizing teacher seniority over new teachers and teacher performance, granting teachers more days off, and limiting the number of hours students spend in school each day” were “significantly more likely to opt for the remote-learning format last year.”

In aggregate, these measures of district-level teacher favoritism do far more to explain remote vs. in-person school decisions than every other variable we tested, including the COVID-19 infection rates in the community.

On the other hand, districts that historically favor students remained in-person. If only that were fair.

Although there are legitimate reasons to worry about the health risks of in-person school for unvaccinated children, a mounting body of literature has demonstrated that remote instruction is detrimental to students’ learning. While the full effects of pandemic-driven remote school on America’s schoolchildren will not be known for years, it is already clear that remote school has hurt the average student and that the damage has fallen disproportionately on low-income students, urban students, and students of color. Students in these groups are more likely to be in a remote school and are less able to learn in a remote classroom due to resource disparities at both the school and the household level.

The pair concludes:

Rather than using the euphemisms “teacher-favoring districts” and “student-favoring districts,” let us be more direct. If you want to know why your children are in Zoom school, look to your local teachers’ union. The more power it enjoys, the more likely it is that your kids will be in Zoom school, regardless of vaccination rates, infection rates, or emergency-room capacity. Media coverage to the contrary, this should not be surprising. After all, teachers’ unions are supposed to protect the interests of teachers, not students. Most of the time, those interests are somewhat aligned, but when — as with the COVID-19 pandemic — teachers’ interests come into conflict with the needs of students, teachers’ unions become a serious obstacle.

NRPlus members can read the whole article here.

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