Opening Schools Should Be Priority No. 1

Opening Schools Should Be Priority No. 1

Over the long course of the Covid-19 pandemic, one comforting fact has been that children have been at very little risk from the virus. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they haven’t suffered.

In fact, research on pandemic-related school closings suggests that the harm imposed on kids could last a lifetime. A recent report from McKinsey & Co., which analyzed data for 1.6 million elementary-school kids in the U.S., found that on average they were five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. Hardest hit were kids from low-income districts, as well as predominantly Black and Hispanic ones. The authors warn that this “unfinished learning” could impede future academic progress and depress wages “far into adulthood.” They also found rising rates of anxiety and depression.

Most parents won’t be surprised by those findings. They’ve watched their kids struggle to learn online, or become increasingly isolated without the vital social interactions in-person schooling provides. For many, remote learning has been a slow-motion disaster.

Getting kids back in the classroom must be a society-wide priority. We must turn the page on the last school year, when too many unions obstructed or slowed down school reopenings. America’s children cannot afford a repeat of that harmful episode, and it’s essential that teachers help lead the way.

The good news is that the vast majority of teachers are vaccinated, according to the National Education Association and the White House. Few other industries can boast of such high numbers. Teachers were given priority for vaccinations in many areas, and most had the good sense — and sense of professional responsibility — to get the shots. The country would be in much better shape if more of their former pupils followed their examples.

Some states are now considering vaccination mandates for teachers, which would help push the rate up near 100% — an outcome that would be good for both teachers and students. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten says her union, which had opposed vaccine mandates, now supports them, a welcome change that Weingarten deserves credit for. 

At the same time, the AFT is right to oppose efforts by state legislatures to prohibit localities from requiring that masks be worn in schools. Attempting to block schools from taking safety precautions is outrageous — politics at its most reckless — and could well result in deaths. With the CDC recommending mask wearing for indoor spaces where transmission rates are high, local jurisdictions should have the ability to remain flexible about requiring masks in certain situations. They’ll also have plenty of money for mitigation measures — such as improving ventilation systems or establishing testing programs — given that most states still haven’t fully spent the school-relief funds Congress has lavished on them the past two years.

We are heading into a new school year with vaccines that have proven incredibly effective against severe sickness and death, with a teacher vaccination rate approaching 100%, and with the knowledge — based on data from study after study — that transmission in the classroom is rare, a point the CDC has also emphasized.

In other words: The time for excuses is over. After saying two weeks ago that the union would “try to open up schools,” Weingarten seemed to realize she misspoke — because trying isn’t good enough. Last week, she said she was “1,000% committed to getting teachers and kids back in school.” That’s good, and now we need union leaders to follow through on it.

Given the appalling damage remote learning has inflicted on American children, a clear message needs to echo from the White House to the Department of Education all the way down to the district level: Open the schools, five days a week, no exceptions.

Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, and UN Special Envoy on Climate Ambition and Solutions.

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