The Hidden Costs of School Closures—Hadley Manning

After 18 students committed suicide in Las Vegas, the Clark County school district decided to reopen for in-person learning. The youngest was a nine-year-old.

In Chicago, home to the nation’s third-largest public school district, teachers unions have rejected calls by Democratic mayor Lori Lightfoot to re-open, citing concerns about health and safety.

In this episode, we sit down with Hadley Heath Manning, director of policy at the Independent Women’s Forum, to understand what recent studies have to say about schools reopening and the sometimes-hidden costs of keeping children and teenagers isolated.

This is American Thought Leaders, and I’m Jan Jekielek.

Jan Jekielek: Hadley Manning, so great to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Hadley Manning: Thanks for having me.

Mr. Jekielek: We’ve been talking offline about school closures or more importantly, school reopenings. I came across this clip just from recently February 3, a Bronx public school student, a senior at a press conference. Let’s take a look.

Student: I feel like these couple of, almost a year, almost a year has been really, really tough for me, not only as an athlete, as a student, but most importantly, as a person.  I haven’t had any live responses from college in almost a year. We were told that, “Oh, in the fall, if you guys social distance, you guys stay in shape, you guys work hard, you will get a season.” Well, it didn’t happen. And then now the spring is approaching. We were told, “Oh, in the spring, you guys might have a season.” And now, we’re almost there and people are backing away, like, “Oh, yes, we know, you guys, we said this, but look at this and look at that.”

I feel like they were giving up on us. I feel like they gave up on us. I feel like they just kind of looked at the public school kids and were like, “You know what? They’re not really that important.” You know, it really hurt because your senior year is your most important year. And right now, I have friends who have not been able to apply to college because there’s no leadership. They don’t have the guidance counselors helping them. They don’t have the teachers helping them. They don’t have recommendations. They don’t have this, they don’t have that.

And I was able to take my SATs through my coach who showed me the way. I signed up for his classes. It was really helpful. I couldn’t take the SAT’s in the city. I had to go to New Rochelle. I had to go up there to take the SAT. [inaudible] And the city stopped doing them, every single time. And I just feel like it’s been like hanging on a thread. You wait for your senior year, and it just gets taken away from you. You wake up in the morning. You just look at the screen from the morning to three o’clock, and that’s basically school. And I feel like that’s not enough. Virtual school is not a real school. So, thank you.

Mr. Jekielek: Okay, so what are your impressions here?

Ms. Manning: My heart just breaks for this young man and for so many other students across our country who have been in a similar situation the past year almost now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re missing not just those educational opportunities, but really, especially since this young man is a high school senior, rites of passage in our society, in our culture—graduation, prom, football season, and basketball season. These are things that are really important to young people, and they’re important to their parents. They’re important just in terms of the experience, the socialization, and the time with peers. Those are things that those students will never get back.

Mr. Jekielek: So let’s dive into this issue. Here, he’s talking about a number of the drawbacks that he’s feeling. One of the things he says is, “I kind of feel like we’ve been forgotten about, like we’ve been neglected.” So we’re a year in right now, or almost a year in. I think all of this started around March of last year. You’ve been arguing for school reopenings. So tell me about this.

Ms. Manning: Pretty early on, we started to learn that the COVID virus, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, doesn’t behave the same way that some other viruses like the influenza virus behaves in children. That is to say that children are actually at higher risk for severe disease related to the flu, whereas they’re at lower risk when it comes to COVID-19. What a blessing, really, that children have been one of the groups least impacted from a health perspective from the virus itself.

So the school reopening debate quickly became less about what is most safe for students. Of course, there are concerns about especially older high school age students and the way that they can transmit or develop disease related to the coronavirus. But ultimately, I think the debate began to hinge on the adults in the school system, and what were the risks associated with being in a classroom if you’re a teacher, or if you’re school staff, or if you’re a bus driver, and those things are very important. And of course, we have had this debate and discussion about the risk-benefit analysis of keeping schools open.

The problem is, ultimately, from my perspective, in our public school system, we have a set of perverse incentives. If the school system is dedicated to keeping teachers on payroll at the same levels of pay, regardless of how they perform or at what level, what type of instruction they offer to students, then there’s very little leverage in terms of, for example, offering hazard pay to teachers who are willing to get back into the classroom and reducing the pay of teachers who might want to work from home because maybe they have a health issue or maybe they simply are more risk averse than other teachers. So that is a limitation on the public school system and has created this sort of incentive problem.

Mr. Jekielek: So what are studies saying about the actual costs and benefits and risks of reopening?

Ms. Manning: Of course, from the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve been sort of studying not just how the disease is transmitted, but what the risks are specifically associated with school closures and school reopenings. The findings in that regard, in terms of papers that have been published in Pediatrics and the Lancet, Health Affairs—these are widely respected medical and health policy journals—suggest that school closures have more risks, more downsides, more harms to students and are not justified, that schools should be reopened for in-person learning.

These are reliant on studies that have followed students throughout real school reopenings. They followed the transmission risks—and this is for first level transmission within the school and also secondary transmission outside of the school—and they’ve concluded that that risk is exceedingly low, especially compared to other activities that people might do socially and otherwise. The CDC says the rate of infection from students to teachers has been low. The Lancet says that school closures might lead to a greater number of death than school openings, or than school closures might prevent.

The Journal of Pediatrics suggests that school closures do not reduce the spread of COVID-19, and that modeling is confirmed by studies from other countries. Other countries say that their school closures didn’t help control the pandemic. There are studies from Ireland and Australia in particular that found no evidence of secondary transmission of COVID-19 from schoolchildren. There’s a study in Sweden. Sweden largely kept their schools open even when many other European countries and the United States had school closures. Swedish schools were even open last spring, in spring of 2020, and what they found was that zero deaths resulted.

One of the studies in Health Affairs actually suggested that there are a variety of policies that we have taken to try to mitigate the growth rate of the COVID-19 virus: from sheltering in place, the most extreme example, restaurant closures, and limitations on large gatherings. All of these things do suggest that to varying degrees you can reduce the percentage growth rate of COVID-19 with sheltering in place being the most successful in terms of reducing the spread as much as eight or nine percent. Now on the other hand, school closures have not been shown to reduce the growth rate of the spread of the virus.

In fact, this Health Affairs paper suggests that school closures actually led to a higher growth rate for the COVID-19 virus in a community. I suppose we could speculate that’s because in school students are being very cautious. They’re wearing masks, they’re washing hands, and their desks are seated six feet apart. In some cases, there’s face shields for teachers or plexiglass for teachers. So some of these measures that schools are taking to mitigate the risk of transmission are very successful. That’s why the CDC, under both the Trump administration and the Biden administration suggest that schools should reopen safely, even if vaccination for teachers is not a prerequisite for reopening.

We’ve also seen groups like the Academy of American Pediatricians say, from the very beginning, at least with their initial statement about this, that schools should be open for in-person learning. So I don’t think that the risk of putting students and teachers together in school is really enough to justify keeping schools closed given that the benefits to students are incredible, not just in terms of keeping them learning, reading, writing, and arithmetic, but socially we haven’t even talked about sort of the devastating impact on students when it comes to their mental health. When it comes to stress and anxiety and depression, and even suicide ideation and the youth suicide rates that we’re seeing, we’ll continue to see as a result of school closures.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, so tell me about that. And he of course, mentioned this in, like you said, in the video. There’s been basically no sports, no physical activity, no phys ed class. There might be some, like you said, socializing on the side outside of school, as well. I guess it depends. But what are the things that students can’t do like that? And what are the costs of that?

Ms. Manning: I think certainly from a mental health perspective, the Las Vegas school district is an area that comes to mind because The New York Times did a story on why that district ultimately made the decision to reopen. It was after a very sad string of student suicides. Eighteen students in the Las Vegas school district had committed suicide since school closures went into effect. I just remember reading this story—and I’m a mother, and so I was really touched by this—the youngest of the students to commit suicide was a nine-year-old.

You can imagine sort of the weight of the world that we’ve all been feeling as adults and as parents, that certainly things have changed abruptly. We’re concerned about our health, we’re concerned about our politics, we’re concerned about our communities. Children are feeling that too, and without the ability to be with their peers and to do normal things like have birthday parties, participate in sports, mark the coming of age activities that are so normal and so natural and so good for children, it’s really taking its toll.

So this isn’t just about the learning loss. I think that’s where some of the debate is, people say it’s no big deal if kids don’t stay on par with sort of these metrics that we’ve put into place in terms of how much they read or how well they can do math. That’s one piece of the puzzle, of course, but I think maybe an even bigger piece is the mental health of students.

One thing that I haven’t mentioned and a concern that I have—it’s something that people give lip service to, but I don’t know if the school reopening debate has really considered this point with as much priority as they ought to. Schools, for better or worse, serve as community hubs that work beyond their mission of educating children, and that’s not just the part of the discussion surrounding childcare for women or childcare for working parents.

It also has to do with student’s health, related not just to nutrition, but also the detecting and reporting of neglect and child abuse—that absent an open school facility where children can go to escape what might be a very toxic home life and many home lives, I imagine, have become even more toxic, given the stressors related to the coronavirus, to public health, and to the economic fallout related to the coronavirus, there are fewer places for children to go to have a responsible adult lay eyes on them and say, “Wow, it looks like you are in a situation at home that’s not acceptable to us as a society.”

It’s certainly been the case that we’ve seen drug abuse increasing among the general population and also among parents who have children in the home. This has resulted in an overburdening of our foster care system, because there are still some avenues to find children in bad home situations. But it’s an incredible loss for our society to not have open schools as a place where teachers and staff can do the reporting.

My husband is a pediatrician, so I know at the pediatric hospital where they work that this is an issue. That’s one place where, sadly, child abuse and neglect are often caught. But without schools to do this, unfortunately, it’s a reality for many children. They’re not just sitting at home in front of a screen and feeling their educational loss, but they’re subjected to much worse situations.

Mr. Jekielek: Does the virtual learning actually work? How close is it to the norm in terms of getting people educated?

Ms. Manning: Yes. I’ve heard mixed stories from parents. Certainly, there have always been some, for example, charter schools that have specialized in virtual learning. They seem to have a good formula for that. I know there are some people who have gone with that option and they say, “This is working great for my student.” But those stories tend to be in the minority.

I’ve heard other parents, particularly with younger students, if you’ve got a kindergartener or first grader, you can imagine how frustrating it is to try to get that student to sit still in front of a computer screen and learn how to use the different online platforms to click here, and to click there. So it’s been enormously frustrating for those parents who have had to step aside from their work and their focus and their jobs and their vocations to help become online instructors or online proctors for their children.

This model of virtual learning, for most people, I will say, has not been effective. It has been very frustrating. It has been something that has created so much work for teachers, and for parents, and for students just to learn how to learn in that environment. It’s simply not working for many.

Mr. Jekielek: There’s also this element: there are students that are just generally very self-motivated, tend to excel outside of parental or even teacher involvement to some extent. That’s probably not everybody. There’s a lot that need a lot of that support from school. So are you seeing differences there?

Ms. Manning: Absolutely. I think in almost every area of life, the pandemic, sadly, has exacerbated inequalities in our society between women and men in the workplace as women, as mothers have taken on increased caregiving responsibilities largely in response to school closures or socio-economic inequalities between people who are in essential wage jobs where they have to leave the home.

They cannot be physically present to ensure that their children are logging on and doing the schoolwork versus parents who have the ability to have more oversight over their children’s virtual learning. That’s absolutely the case. Even on top of that virtual learning piece, there’s this layer of, again, people leaving the public school system and going to the private learning pod or the private school. That’s only an option for people who have the resources to do so.

Mr. Jekielek: So these private schools, they’ve actually been a crucible of sorts to figure out how to deal with the pandemic while keeping schools open. Tell me about what they found.

Ms. Manning: Well, what’s interesting is that many, many more private schools opened to in-person learning, particularly with the start of the fall semester in 2020. Less than 10 percent of private schools were using the virtual learning options. That means over 90 percent of private schools were offering some form of in-person learning, whether that’s the hybrid model where you’re in a classroom for part of the time or a full time five-day week in-person option, versus in the public school, where it was less than half of the public schools started the school year in 2020 with in-person learning.

You can see that’s a pretty big variation, a pretty big difference just in general between the route that private schools took and the route that public schools took. What we found with private schools being open, and of course, I understand the nature of private schools, this is an important caveat—the nature of private schools is different from the nature of public schools. What I mean by that is you might have more white collar parents in the private school community who have the benefit of having the ability to work from home or do more social distancing, versus parents and grandparents and caregivers in the public school population that don’t have that benefit.

I understand there are other important differences, but certainly, I think part of what we’re seeing is a reflection of students’ and families’ preferences for in-person learning and the sort of reaction that private schools have to have to their population’s preferences, whereas the public schools can be more intransigent on this point. They can respond to, for example, the political power of teachers unions ahead of and before the interests of students and their families.

Mr. Jekielek: So, what’s the bottom line right now? Are there examples where school reopening doesn’t make sense at this point, that you’re aware of? Or is it just something that everybody should be seriously considering?

Ms. Manning: Well, I think that this issue, unfortunately, gets painted as so black and white, when it’s really been varying degrees of gray. The public school system does have a lot to deal with. It has some issues that maybe don’t present in the private school system. For example, public schools have to offer services related to feeding kids, and related to transporting kids. Some of those issues have been very hard for public school districts to sort through. It depends largely on if you’re in a rural area or urban area. Those issues might play out very differently.

Certainly the public school system employs a lot of people who are retirement age. They’re older, and they’re at higher risk of COVID-19. Many women are public school teachers, and they have children of their own. So they have to figure out how to oversee the virtual learning of their own children while they’re teaching virtually or while they’re trying to do the hybrid model. So many of these issues are very complicated. They’ve been very hard for districts to sort out, even if all parties are negotiating in good faith.

I think the biggest problems come into play when some parties aren’t negotiating in good faith, and they’re using the pandemic, they’re using school closures as an opportunity to say, “Here’s our offer of when we will come back into the classroom.” And then a month later, that offer has changed and the goalposts have moved, whether that has to do with vaccinations, or positivity rates in the community. I really think, ultimately, we’re only going to see a solution to this when parents and families are able to have the same negotiating power and the same leverage that, for example, teachers unions have had in some of these debates.

Parents and families don’t have that leverage right now because in the public school system, funding comes from taxes. Taxes are not optional. Public schools are going to continue to be funded, regardless of the services that they offer, or how. Whereas private schools are more responsive to consumer demand, because if they don’t offer the services that parents and students and families want, then they’re not in business anymore.

Mr. Jekielek: Obviously, this begets this question of the value of school choice or the availability of school choice for parents. Perhaps it’s not the private school, but maybe there are charter school options and things like that. I do want to get back to the public schools a little bit, but tell me about that first.

Ms. Manning: It’s interesting. I’ve just heard anecdotally from a handful of parents who have submitted their stories to us at Independent Women’s Forum—we’ve been collecting pandemic learning stories—that there are folks out there who said, I would have never favored school choice before. I didn’t think that it was equitable. I didn’t think it was good for the public school system.

But now that they’ve been through this personal experience, where they’ve witnessed their public school district acting in ways that they think are not in the best interest of their child, they’ve taken their children out of the public school system, put them in private schools, or put them in some other learning situation, typically having to self-fund a tutor or learning pod. They said, “Now I see that school choice is actually the great equalizer.”

School choice, whether that’s offering every family an education savings account, giving them some of the funding that the public school would have received on their behalf to go in search of other educational tools, tutors, private school tuition, however the family wants to direct that funding or use that funding, they’re saying, “This has really opened my eyes to the fact that school choice can be something that offers opportunities to people who don’t otherwise have those opportunities, whereas absent school choice, the only people with a choice are the people with financial resources.”

That’s an interesting change that I’ve witnessed in the mindset of many parents. I’m curious how it’s going to impact our politics. I think many states have proposed legislation in this legislative session related to school choice, and it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned the really terrible Nevada example that basically spurred the system to act. Who’s doing it right out there in your mind right now?

Ms. Manning: I think any district that has recognized that schooling is essential—schooling is more essential than recreational activities for adults. As much as I love going to restaurants and bars and appreciate that is a source of livelihood for so many people, including so many women who work in those industries, we’ve got to put schools at the very front of the line in terms of the essential services we have to keep open, even if it means putting more restrictions on other industries because education is a backbone of our society and feeds the workforce of the future.

That’s been a very difficult thing for policymakers to navigate. I appreciate how the virus has been received differently and navigated differently in different states, depending on their populations, their mix of rural and urban. I don’t know that there’s really a one-size-fits-all when it comes to the right state or local policy. But schools that have managed to stay open have done a great service to their students. They’ve really avoided some of these terrible outcomes in terms of the mental health impact.

Mr. Jekielek: You did mention that there seems to be a disproportionate challenge for women due to the pandemic: kids being at home, and so forth. In this December jobs report, we saw that it was predominantly women that were losing their jobs. It was quite stark, actually, how significant that was. Why is that happening, and what is the impact here?

Ms. Manning: It’s kind of a kitschy term, but I’ve heard people talk about a “shecession” that we’re having as a response to the pandemic, and that’s twofold, I think. Number one, the reason is that women do tend to congregate and dominate professions that are public facing. This is, of course, painting with a very broad stroke, but women have generally good people skills, they like being in jobs where they’re doing caregiving, where they’re working directly with other people, and they’re really putting a lot of their social and emotional intelligence to work.

So hospitality, retail, certainly the social sector, caregiving, we see a lot of women in those jobs and those jobs, because of the nature of the pandemic and the social distancing that we’ve all been trying to do in response, have taken enormous job losses, and that impacts women. On the other hand, there’s this issue of childcare, and women have, even outside of this pandemic, traditionally taken on the lion’s share of childcare responsibilities within their own homes and in the childcare profession and in the caregiving profession, for example, the elderly and disabled communities.

When you don’t have that sort of infrastructure in place to take your children to a daycare, or take your children to school, or have a caregiver come to your house, that can be a very equilibrium-upsetting phenomenon in many families. So what women have found is, they’re really feeling this tension between their desire to work or their desire for income, versus the necessity of watching over their children or caring for children who are doing virtual learning at home.

For this reason, we’ve seen surveys of women showing one in three or one in four women say, I’ve thought about quitting my job, leaving my job, or asking for some kind of downshifting in my career so that I can take care of all these additional responsibilities that I feel, now absent the services, childcare- and school-wise, that we had before.

Mr. Jekielek: There’s also this question, this is something I’ve been thinking about. We seem to live in an incredibly, incredibly risk-averse society. And the intersection of that, if I’m right—I haven’t been reading studies about this per se, it’s just my sense—the intersection of that and coronavirus seems like a really bad combination.

Ms. Manning: It does. That would be a hard thing to study and quantify from a scientific perspective. But certainly, I’ve heard people reexamining other eras of history saying, “What if they had applied the same logic that it’s always better to be safe than sorry. What about the people who came across the Atlantic on the Mayflower or the people who spread across the United States as pioneers to the west or the gold rush to California?

What if Americans during those periods of history had had the same mentality, that it’s always better to be safe than to take any risk?” I think history would have played out very differently. We’ve put men on the moon and certainly would have been safer for them to stay here on planet Earth, but we thought that the risk was worth taking for the sake of progress, for the sake of doing great things. There are so many things that we have forgone as a society.

Of course, in many areas, we have tried to navigate some middle ground where, for example, we can have the NBA playing basketball games. We can’t let high school students play sports, but we can let the NBA play so that people can have some outlet for sports entertainment. However, we have lost so much, in my opinion, when it comes to concerts, art, just being together as humans in our communities for a variety of social gatherings. It’s been a very hard thing for people to navigate in terms of what the cost-benefit or the risk-benefit analysis has been.

In many cases in the United States, at least, we have given people the personal freedom to make one thousand of those risk-benefit analyses on their own. In other ways, we’ve seen states and localities and even the federal government, to a certain degree, step in with a mandate and say, “You cannot do this thing.” So yes, I’m concerned about what is lost when we put safety above everything else, because certainly it doesn’t come without a cost.

Focusing so much on, for example, the risk of this particular disease I’m afraid, has taken our eyes off of the risks of so many other things that come from social isolation, whether that’s mental health issues, which I’ve mentioned many times, but also substance abuse, or delayed healthcare for other elective procedures or chemotherapy for cancer patients. When we put those things on hold because we’re concerned about the risk of this particular virus, that comes with a cost, not just in terms of human progress or money for the economy, but it comes with a cost for our human lives, for our life expectancy, for our enjoyment of life.

So that’s a very serious miscalculation, I think, that we have made almost at every level. We’ve been so exposed to information about the risk of this virus without really considering all the other risks that come with an overreaction to COVID-19.

Mr. Jekielek: Hadley, any final thoughts before we finish up?

Ms. Manning: I think that we’ve seen the status quo in American life shaken up in so many ways. My particular interest is how this impacts families. I’m very curious to see how this will impact other issue areas, for example, the issue of paid family leave, universal childcare, childcare subsidies, the ways that people make decisions about marriage, and about family, about fertility.

It’s very important that we as a society, whenever it is safe to do so, come back into our communities and show support for one another, through civil society, through organizations, through churches, through charities, through any means that we can, so that people feel that social support that they feel has been lost so much. They say it takes a village to raise a child. The school is part of the village.

But there are other pieces to the village as well that have been missing from the lives of many mothers and fathers.  I’m very curious to see how we move on from this. People are anticipating maybe a raging economy like we saw in the 1920s, after the Spanish flu pandemic. I would love to see that. I’d love to see the economy really take off.

But I’d also like to see sort of a raging reengagement of our social interactions. What that might look like for families could be something really wonderful or it could be that having now depleted many of those casual ties or relationships in our society, it may be very hard to bring them back. So that’s something that I’ll be watching with great interest.

Mr. Jekielek: Hadley Manning, such a pleasure to have you on.

Ms. Manning: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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