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DEBRA J. SAUNDERS: Remote learning in public schools is widening the achievement gap

“You don’t just have a partner in the White House,” former Vice President Joe Biden told the National Education Association as he campaigned for the White House in July, “you’ll have an NEA member in the White House.”

That remark — a reference to the president-elect’s wife, educator Jill Biden — should chill the hearts of American parents who believe education is essential and cannot be replicated outside the classroom.

As the coronavirus spread fear among the country’s elected class, the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers latched onto mass school closures. Even now that research shows public schools have not turned into superspreaders as feared, the education establishment is in little hurry to end distance learning even though it especially hurts poor children, immigrant children and those with special needs.

Sure, they meant well. But as Joanne Jacobs, a California education blogger and freelance writer, told me, the union leaders focused on the possibility that one 12-year-old might die if public schools remained open, but not the consequences of 100,000 kids who don’t learn to read or learn math and end up dropping out of high school.

A new article in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at the consequences of remote learning and noted, “The public debate has pitted ‘school closures’ against ‘lives saved,’ or the education of children against the health of the community. Presenting the trade-offs in this way obscures the very real health consequences of interrupted education.”

Authors Dimitri A. Christakis, Wil Van Cleve and Frederick J. Zimmerman looked at how a lengthy teachers’ strike in Argentina and Belgium affected students and found that students scored lower on tests and achieved less of an education. They crunched the numbers for U.S. students and figured 24.2 million students ages five to 11 will experience 5.53 million years of life lost as a result of closures in American schools.

What does that statistic even mean? Critics who try to frame the issue as “jobs versus lives,” Jacobs argued, should realize that jobs are what pay the rent and keep families from homelessness. Without a basic education, people make less money, are less healthy and die younger.

“What I’m seeing is very scary and depressing. It’s clear that many young people are falling behind in school. The kids who were behind before are farther behind,” Jacobs noted.

Students who are reading from home may not do so well with math. “Kids pretty much learn math at school or don’t learn it,” Jacobs offered.

In Virginia, the Washington Post reported, Fairfax County Public Schools, which has operated mostly online, published an internal analysis that showed the percentage of middle school and high school students who flunked at least two classes jumped 83 percent, from 6 percent to 11 percent.

Children with two highly educated parents at home and a backyard with a swingset are likely to end up fine. But children with special needs and those whose parents don’t have the time or background to home-school or who lack the technology will return to the classroom lagging behind the curriculum.

When districts open for all students, poor kids will walk through the classroom doors behind students who have weathered the pandemic with more advantages.

“This is the most inequitable thing I’ve ever seen in education,” Jacobs said.

Of course school districts should accommodate teachers and students with comorbidities that put them at risk. Ditto those who live with people with comorbidities. But unless Americans want to widen the achievement gap even more, the education establishment has to open the schoolhouse. If teachers’ unions don’t push for a swift return to the classroom, Biden should not be their partner.

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com

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