New York mag: Progressives must admit that school closures were a catastrophic error

AP Photo/Denis Poroy

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

Technically this isn’t part of the genre of “COVID mom” pieces that have run recently, in which women on the left lambaste their party for having damaged kids with protracted and unnecessary school closures, but it’s genre-adjacent. It was written by Jonathan Chait, one of New York magazine’s well-known liberal columnists. And Chait’s piece isn’t a recounting of personal frustration with closed schools and pro-closure advocates but rather an analysis of the group psychology that led progressives to keep doubling down on shuttering classrooms long after it was clear that the policy was doing more harm than good. His column resembles those of David Leonhardt, another widely read liberal in New York media who’s tried to reason with his readers lately by showing them why kids have more to fear from being out of class than from being in it.

January 2022 will be remembered as the month Omicron ran roughshod over America but also the month when many in the liberal political class, including a few lefty stalwarts like Lori Lightfoot, finally admitted that school closures have been a disaster. Chait calls them “a historic blunder that reveals some deeper flaw in the methods that produced it and which demands corrective action” and warns of “irrecoverable” damage to children’s social development. He even indulges Nate Silver’s comparison of the policy to the Iraq war, not in the sense that the amount of human misery between the two is comparable but in the way that some proponents of each have found it impossible to admit error given the magnitude of the adverse consequences their position has caused.

What happened next was truly disturbing: The left by and large rejected this evidence. Progressives were instead carried along by two predominant impulses. One was a zero-COVID policy that refused to weigh the trade-off of any measure that could even plausibly claim to suppress the pandemic. The other was deference to teachers unions, who were organizing to keep schools closed. Those strands combined into a refusal to acknowledge the scale or importance of losing in-person learning with a moralistic insistence that anybody who disagreed was callous about death or motivated by greed…

In a big country, there are always going to be crazy people at the margins. You can measure the health of the parties by the degree to which crazy ideas are taken up by powerful people. (This, of course, is why the Republican Party handing the most powerful job in the world to a conspiracy theorist is the grimmest possible sign.) But the Democratic Party’s internal debate on school closings was making room at the table for some truly unhinged ideas. The head of the largest state’s most powerful teachers union insisted on the record “there is no such thing as learning loss” and described plans to reopen schools as “a recipe for propagating structural racism.”

Within blue America, transparently irrational ideas like this were able to carry the day for a disturbingly long period of time.

A common thread between this column and the “COVID mom” pieces is shock at the viciousness with which liberals have been attacked by their comrades for opposing school closures despite the fact they agree with them on most other policies:

The Democratic Party’s left-wing vanguard is continuing to flay critics of school closings as neoliberal ghouls carrying out the bidding of the billionaire class. Bernie Sanders aide Elizabeth Pancotti claims that “the loudest and most ardent supporters of keeping schools oepn [sic] (& those who dismiss legit concerns about teacher/child health risks) are largely those with remote work options/resources for alternative child care arrangements,” as if only some selfish motive could explain the desire of an American liberal to maintain public education. A story in Vice praises a student walkout in New York as a national model.

There’s nothing unusual about a dissenter getting the business from partisan allies in nasty ways in America 2022 but school closures are an issue that should be more amenable than most to reasoned debate. We have reams of data proving on the one hand that COVID almost never makes kids severely ill and on the other that kids who’ve missed considerable classroom time have fallen behind intellectually and are struggling mentally. Even if you land on the side of keeping schools closed for whatever foolish reason, it should be easy to sympathize with the counterarguments. And yet:

Bodenheimer is one of the liberals whose column arguing against long-running school closures went viral last week. She’s run into the buzzsaw of lefty opinion that holds that prioritizing anything over maximum COVID safety is callous, aligning you with the dreaded right wing. Chait acidly compares that logic to anti-vaxxer propaganda in righty media, with the right harming the oldest members of their coalition with its brand of disinformation while the left harms its youngest members with its own.

We can spitball about the intellectual flaws that led them to this. One is the left’s supreme confidence in its own virtue; for some it must be almost literally inconceivable that a policy aimed at trying to keep kids and their communities safe from illness at all costs might become a fiasco. Another is ignorance. Recall that Gallup survey from last year demonstrating how Democrats wildly — wildly — overestimate the risk of being hospitalized if you’re infected by COVID. Someone who’s primed to believe that the disease is worse than it is will seize on any scrap of information that appears to prove that it’s worse for kids too.

But I think the “sunk cost” fallacy explains most of it. It was totally reasonable to want schools closed in the spring of 2020, before it was clear how a novel virus might affect children and whether schools might turn into factories of transmission. But they went all-in on school closures after Trump called for reopening classrooms in the fall of 2020 and some will never be able to admit that not only was he right, their “victory” in that debate has proved to be Pyrrhic. They won the argument, at least in blue states, and wrecked children in doing so. To continue with Silver’s and Chait’s analogy, doubling down on school closures at this point feels like the progressive version of Bush’s troop surge in 2007. It’s not that the strategy was wrong, it just needs more commitment.

Read these two depressing pieces about schools in New York and California that are struggling to cope with the Omicron wave in their states. The problem at the moment isn’t with schools keeping kids out, it’s kids choosing not to show up — whether because they’re infected or because their parents are afraid to send them to class and risk exposing them to the virus. That’s an underappreciated facet of lefty anxiety about COVID. Democrats and teachers unions bear most of the blame for learning loss but don’t overlook the role of parents who choose to keep children home because they’ve been misinformed about the extent of the threat from the media sources they read. COVID is a threat to adults in poor health, especially older ones. It’s been clear for at least a year and a half that it’s never been a threat to kids.