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Democrats Just Won’t Admit They Blew It by Supporting Lengthy COVID School Closures

Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

Last year, German health minister Karl Lauterbach did something politicians almost never do unless they’ve been caught with their pants down: He apologized. Closing schools for long periods during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lauterbach said, had been an “unnecessary mistake.”

Where is our Lauterbach?

Though President Joe Biden wasn’t in office at the start of the pandemic, he and other prominent Democrats have had ample opportunities to account for their roles in a slow-motion disaster that began almost exactly four years ago, when schools closed “temporarily” in the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic.

Get Ready for the Bleakest General Election Ever

After what was supposed to be a merely temporary closure, New York City announced on March 23, 2020, that it was moving to remote learning for the rest of the year. That day, remote learning “officially” began in Washington, D.C., too, after days of haphazard experimentation with digital education. Similar experiments emerged across the country, as parents realized—with dread, in many cases—that the societal disruption of the coronavirus was going to last.

Four years later, the wounds have not fully healed.

True, Republican resistance to masks and vaccines harmed and killed many more people than any policy embraced by liberals. But I don’t think I am alone in expecting greater moral clarity from Biden than from Donald Trump. And when it comes to school, it is clear that Democrats have not truly reckoned with the decisions they made in 2020 and 2021.

Earlier this week, a data analysis by The New York Times summarized the effect of the closures that began four years ago: “…extended school closures did not significantly stop the spread of COVID, while the academic harms for children have been large and long-lasting.” The longer schools stayed closed (or partly closed, with students only attending school in-person one or two days per week), the more children fell behind.

The devastating effects of remote learning are evident today in the absenteeism crisis, the teacher shortage, and the spike in mental illness among young adults.

This week, The Times also reported that city schools “are grappling with a spike in discipline problems among children, evidence that the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic are having lingering effects, educators and experts say.” It’s not just about test scores. Our children lost something essential because adults lacked the courage to do the right thing.

Thus, the deep bitterness many parents felt about having to play “teacher” for months on end. That bitterness manifested in the suburbs of Northern Virginia in Nov. 2021, helping Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, become the state’s next governor. And it is still there, waiting to surface in Nov. 2024.

“I think parents who saw their children suffer from politics rather than scientific principles in making policy decisions still think about the prolonged school closures in the U.S.,” Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco who bravely called for schools to reopen long before many of her peers, wrote to me in an email.

Grievances tend to work on voters more than promises, I have found. The grievances of parents—mothers in suburban swing districts, for instance—could hurt Biden much the way they did former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the president’s friend, when he ran confidently against the inexperienced Youngkin.

It should have never come to this. By summer 2020, we knew that children, for the most part, don’t get especially sick with COVID-19. And around that time we also knew that schools were never the viral incubators some claimed they were bound to become. Studies from South Korea, the United Kingdom, and other countries confirmed as much. So did the safe reopening of schools in red states like Florida and Texas.

Somehow, evidence did not seem to matter. People who claimed to “listen to the science” turned away when the science said schools should reopen.

“Liberals really poisoned the well when they decided to wage war against anyone who dared to make any public health calculations during the pandemic, despite the fact that such calculations were inevitable and necessary,” wrote the perceptive writer Freddie deBoer in a recent Substack newsletter. “The relentless braying about ‘eugenics,’ the insistence that anyone who was not a [non-pharmaceutical intervention] maximalist hated the disabled and wanted them to die, contributed directly to the backlash that has resulted in so much COVID conspiracy insanity.”

Why on Earth Is Biden Giving This Teachers’ Union Boss More Power?

If Govs. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and Greg Abbott (R-TX) were reopening schools, then reopening schools had to be wrong, because DeSantis and Abbott did not trust the science and were xenophobic bigots to boot—so the righteous thinking went at the time. To oppose them was to oppose everything wrong with America under Trump. So the schools stayed closed in most deep blue municipalities.

In a harrowing article for The New Yorker published in fall 2020, reporter Alec MacGillis bracingly revealed the scope of devastation remote learning brought to poor kids, especially poor kids of color.

Most chilling of all was the transparently disingenuous defense of school closures by Becky Pringle, head of the powerful National Education Association (NEA), of which First Lady Jill Biden is a member. Pringle preposterously told MacGillis that if schools reopened, some 50,000 children would die. But no news outlet fact-checked her. No one accused Pringle of peddling misinformation, the way they would have if a conservative had made so flagrantly baseless an assertion.

Amazingly, some union leaders continue to defend having closed down schools for months on end. “I do believe it was the right decision,” Jerry Jordan of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers told The Times this week. It is a defiant statement, and an indefensible one. And unless Democrats renounce it, they own it.

It is true that we did not know how serious the virus was at first, which justified closing schools and businesses. But a state of permanent emergency was unsustainable; once we learned how the virus behaved, we should have adjusted accordingly. Yet some “experts” continued to insist on masking outside and keeping schools closed.

Four years ago, we were lost in the “fog of war.” The fog was thick at first, but by May it did begin to lift. We started to understand the true threat of the virus, whom it harmed and for whom it was a very minor risk. Yet in many highly-populated jurisdictions governed by Democrats, nothing changed. It was almost as if they longed for the fog to stay.

Now, there ought to be some honest accountability. We don’t need blue ribbon commissions or Capitol Hill hearings to relitigate how we responded to the pandemic. But we do need elected leaders to have the decency to admit their own mistakes.

“The Buck Stops Here,” said the famous sign on President Harry Truman’s desk.

Where does the buck stop in 2024? Nobody owns their decisions or owns up to their mistakes. There is an almost Soviet avoidance of responsibility. This sure is awful, but it’s not my fault. That guy over there, he looks guilty. Off to the gulag!

Yes, We Have to Point Fingers Over COVID ‘Learning Loss’

If you ask the White House, they will tell you that Biden quickly got schools open in 2021. That’s true. Kind of.

But it took billions of federal stimulus dollars, and in many districts, unsatisfactory hybrid learning continued. Then, when the Delta variant came along in late 2021, many schools closed again—with an especially protracted refusal to return to the classroom by the teachers of Chicago, where in several months Democrats will hold their national convention.

“I think an apology and acknowledgement of the mistakes Democrats made in this epidemic towards children would go a long way in helping their constituents forgive,” Dr. Gandhi wrote to me.

There were plenty of things that Democrats got right about the pandemic. But nobody, anywhere, got it completely right. Not China, not California, not Florida, not Sweden. We know that now. Our political leaders should be brave enough to say it.

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