America rose to greatness with universal public educations; Covid-19 school closures portend future problems

The United States was a pioneer in offering universal public educations at a time when nations all over the world focused on limited access to private and religious educations. Having an educated population was key to the nation’s meteoric rise to becoming a global power between 1776 and WWI. During all manner of historical calamity, a commitment to keeping schools opened has been a priority and for good reasons. Democracies rely on educated populations, so do healthy innovative economies, and offering a semblance of equality of opportunity.

It makes some sense that lacking good information on the spread of Covid-19, politicians assumed that it spread like the flu and children were rampant spreaders. As an outcome they issued blanket orders to close schools, public and private. It makes less sense because data has been available on the limited effect of school closures on the spread of other coronaviruses. It makes even less sense now that there is evidence specific to Covid-19 that children are not efficient spreaders. The Netherlands and Iceland have not found any instance where a school child spread the disease to an adult. All over the world data is available on natural immunities that younger people have to Covid-19. The younger the more immune.  In the United States, this data seems to fall on deaf ears. Some state governors have not even included opening schools in their economic reopening plans. The state of Washington has said they may not open schools until there is a vaccine. Bill Gates says that could be five years away. 

Most mothers work, and nearly half are breadwinners. How can economies reopen when working moms have children home because schools are closed? What about the children? The Economist estimated that school closures this year would leave American students a year behind in math alone. The United States already ranked 28th in math out of 28 nations on the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  Many underprivileged children are foregoing future studies at universities to work or attend community colleges. On average only about a quarter of community college students graduate. Of the Class of 2020 that attend universities, how much higher will the dropout rate be because they didn’t really get immersed in online programs, or the programs themselves were weak. In Seattle, Washington the local government decided in the interest of equity that all public-school students that complete courses would receive As. All seniors would receive a diploma if their teachers said they were in good standing. Obviously, all are in good standing — they got As. The number of students that may have been motivated by achieving a passing grade, maintaining a high GPA, or securing a diploma was vastly reduced, and the number of kids with idle time increased. Seattle’s Class of 2020 could experience new highs as college dropouts, but they did graduate high school with As. When did the value of education become meaningless in parts of the United States?

President Trump urged governors to reopen schools to no avail. Divisive politics in the United States leads many to do the opposite of anything Trump recommends. Even if it means sacrificing children’s educations and future opportunities, and the ability for many women to return to work. Meanwhile, other countries have accepted the need to live with Covid-19 and prioritized opening schools safely. Austria, Belgium, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Netherlands, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, Taiwan, and South Korea have all done this. These countries are a combination of Asian countries that highly value education as evidenced by PISA performance, and western European countries where women generally have greater influence in political decisions than in the United States. Children may not be efficient spreaders of Covid-19, but leaders of these nations are not taking any chances. Children wear masks, they social distance and regularly wash or sanitize their hands, but their educations are not being short changed like they are in most of America. America is known as an innovator — apparently not when it comes to creating safe environments for on-premise educations during an epidemic. Or maybe education is really not valued like it once was. 

Thousands of articles have been written about Covid-19 changing the world order. The United States has been hit hard by Covid-19 from a public health and economic perspective. It is sure to suffer another dip in economic performance in the near future, if its leaders don’t start thinking long and hard about the priorities placed on education when reopening their economies. The United States became a world power on the backs of an educated population, it may fall in the rankings on the backs of a population that is no longer educationally competitive. 

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