The Harm of School Shutdowns


Most public schools were shut down last year. Everyone knows this wasn’t good for children, but what harm was actually done? Studies have confirmed our worst fears about rising rates of suicide, drug abuse, and emotional illness, but what about the loss of education? Now we know how bad that was, too.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board reports a new analysis done by McKinsey and Company which quantifies the extent of the harm to education of our children. The consulting firm examined spring 2021 test results for 1.6 million students in grades 1 through 6 across the country, then compared their performance with that of similar students pre-pandemic. They discovered that the pandemic-era children were, on average, about four months behind in reading and five months behind in math.

As bleak as those numbers are, McKinsey says these numbers, “likely represent an optimistic scenario.” The results measure “outcomes for students who took interim assessments in the spring in a school building – and thus excludes students who remained remote throughout the entire school year, and who may have experienced the most disruption to their schooling.” 

Who is most affected by this harm?

The McKinsey study found that children in majority black schools ended the school year a full six months behind in math and reading on average. Students in schools where the average household income was below $25,000 were seven months behind in math and six months behind in reading.

McKinsey went on to note that “students who move on to the next grade unprepared are missing key building blocks of knowledge that are necessary for success,” and “students who repeat a year are much less likely to complete high school” and attend college. Without “immediate and sustained interventions,” the report predicts the lost learning could slash lifetime earnings by $49,000 to $61,000 on average. The WSJ believes these numbers are probably too low and the damage will be worse than average for millions.

Who is most responsible for this tragic undereducation of our children?

The McKinsey study doesn’t place the blame on anyone but the WSJ editors do. They blame the teachers unions calling them “the main architects of this calamity by first refusing to return to the classroom, then insisting on watered-down schedules. The data company Burbio found that, by the end of the spring semester, most students could attend school at least part-time. But due to union demands, the return sometimes amounted to a few days or hours of in-person learning a week.” 

Who is responsible for giving the teachers unions this amount of influence?

President Joe Biden, and his teachers union first lady, are solid supporters of the teachers unions. During his presidential campaign, Biden said to the teachers unions, “When we win this election, we’re going to get the support you need and the respect you deserve. You don’t just have a partner in the White House, you’ll have an NEA member in the White House. And if I’m not listening, I’m going to be sleeping alone in the Lincoln Bedroom.”

In February of 2021, when schools were eager to reopen, new CDC Director Rochelle Walensky announced a recent study by her institute found schools were safe to reopen without vaccinating the teachers. But the White House pushed back against this scientific study – because the teachers unions didn’t approve. Walensky quickly learned that science takes a back seat to political agendas in this White House.

The WSJ notes many affluent parents can pay for tutors or private schools and avoid these tragic undereducation outcomes. But poorer children don’t have such options. They say the solution is more school choice options. I couldn’t agree more.

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