Commentary: Parents shaped COVID-19 policies more than politics

The emerging snapshots of student learning from state exams and the National Assessment of Educational Progress confirm predictions that COVID-19 would create drastic academic gaps.

A new analysis of student performance from the Center for Reinventing Public Education describes the pandemic “as a wrecking ball for public education in the US, bringing months of school closures, frantic shifts to distance learning, and trauma and isolation.”

Most reactions to the dismal performance of 9-year-olds at the NAEP in math released earlier this month by the US Department of Education include the words “alarming,” “crisis,” and “catastrophic.” The department itself called the 5-point drop in reading and 7-point drop in math between 2020 and 2022 “the largest drop in average reading score since 1990 and the first point drop in math ever.”

I’m not surprised at the dismay at the results. However, I am baffled by the scores’ portrayal of a failure by schools, particularly those that have remained closed the longest, to put students first. Schools are closing to protect children while scientists and disease experts constantly change guidance on how to fight the deadly virus.

We’ve all seen communities decimated by natural disasters, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes somehow recover and rebuild. The difference from these disasters is that after a hurricane ripped a city apart or a tornado leveled a subdivision, there was an established and clear path to recovery led by experts who knew what to do. Emergency shelters are springing up, the Red Cross is rolling in, and convoys of electric trucks are hitting the highways.

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In the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been no marked way out of the dark, no experts with a proven manual, and no trucks full of antidotes to the deadly virus. In March 2020, the coronavirus jumped from a small news event in far-off places to a plague on our doorstep, and none of us were prepared for it, least of all schools suddenly called for producing not only virtual classes but meals, and, on Internet access in many places in Georgia.

COVID-19 compares more closely to a war than a natural disaster when you look at the death toll on the front lines. The World Health Organization estimates that 115,500 healthcare workers worldwide died from COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021. The virus overwhelmed and depleted supplies and staff at Georgia hospitals, with desperate healthcare workers reusing masks, gloves and gowns.

Today, from a safe distance backed by new vaccines, we can dissect what schools should have done better during the pandemic, but we can’t pretend they should have known better.

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No one knew, as evidenced by the deaths of more than 6.5 million people around the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 10.5 million children worldwide have lost a parent or significant other to COVID-19. In the United States, a current estimate is that 225,600 children have experienced the death of a parent or custodial grandparent from the virus.

Still, a national narrative is taking shape that school districts ignored the will of parents and remained virtual, largely because of politics. Parents in Georgia’s longest-remote counties, including Clayton, Atlanta, Decatur and DeKalb, have expressed many reservations about their children returning to the classroom. Most of these districts primarily serve black families, who have had a higher proportion of family members or neighbors who have become ill and killed by the virus.

“Because so many of our families were on the front lines, they weren’t ready for our students to come back altogether,” Clayton County Superintendent Morcease Beasley told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “As a community, we have fundamentally decided that safety is paramount above all else, which means students learn virtually.”

It was a vocal parent base of CDC researchers, physicians, and university employees that prompted the City Schools of Decatur to offer expanded hybrid instruction. That influence also contributed to Decatur’s decision to impose a COVID-19 vaccine mandate and later a booster shot on its school staff, earning the high-performing district a rebuke from Gov. Brian Kemp.

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Decatur, Clayton and Other Metro Districts Didn’t Discount Parents in Their COVID-19 Policies; they have yielded to them in many cases.

“It’s easy to point the finger in hindsight while conveniently forgetting the 95 million COVID cases and over 1 million deaths in the US – 1 death in 330 people,” said Peter Smagorinsky, professor emeritus of education at the University of Georgia. “Like the best plan is to just keep sending people into death traps, which probably puts the kids first – to the grave. Maybe they think we shouldn’t evacuate because of raging fires and floods either, because it’s the evacuation that’s so disruptive.”

Maureen Downey is a journalist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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