America’s school children suffered unnecessary harm during the COVID-19 pandemic due to school closure decisions that lacked a solid scientific basis, witnesses told the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Black, Hispanic, and lower-income students were more affected by these policies, which increased the educational and economic disparity between segments of the population, witnesses said in the March 28 hearing.

“Despite children being COVID’s lowest-risk demographic, American elementary and secondary students were shut out of schools for lengthy periods and relegated to deplorable remote learning,” Virginia Gentles, director of the Education Freedom Center at Independent Women’s Forum, told the subcommittee.

“Irresponsible school district leaders endangered children academically, emotionally, and physically, by closing and refusing to open schools, decisions that led to devastating learning loss, mental health issues, developmental delays, and persistent discipline challenges,” Gentles said.

Profound Harm

Witnesses presented a litany of data on the ill effects of children being deprived of learning, physical activity, and socialization due to school closures.

Investigative journalist David Zweig cited studies showing that test scores in school districts with 100 percent remote instruction fell by three times as much as those who allowed in-person learning for most of the school year.

“Moreover, their research showed that ‘disadvantaged students had disproportionate learning declines during the academic year,’” Zweig said.

He noted that remote instruction was more likely to be used in schools with predominately Black and Hispanic students and that schools in high-poverty areas spent more time in remote learning during the 2020–2021 school year than other schools.

Zweig said that students were also less likely to report abuse during the lockdowns because they no longer had a way to tell an adult what was happening to them.

According to the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as The Nation’s Report Card, math and reading scores plummeted across the country.

“Only 26 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in math and 31 percent in reading nationwide,” Gentles said.

“An October 2022 analysis by Harvard and Stanford Universities researchers found that ‘The average U.S. public school student in grades three through eight lost the equivalent of a half year of learning in math and a quarter of a year in reading,’” she said.

Witnesses also described increased psychological and behavioral problems in students returning to school after the pandemic. That was partly due to the lack of access to school nurses, the primary health care providers for many students, according to Donna Mazyck, executive director of the National Association of School Nurses.

“In 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau reported 5.6 percent of children under 19 were uninsured. For many children living in or near poverty, the school nurse may be the only health care professional they access regularly, and access to a school nurse advances health equity,” Mazyck said.

Unnecessary Loss

Witnesses said that school lockdowns were initiated as a first response to COVID-19 but were not a long-term strategy necessary to prevent the pandemic’s spread.

Tracy Beth Hoeg, an epidemiologist and private practice physician, noted that European schools were fully opened by the fall of 2022 with no ill effects.

“The reopening of schools across Europe was not associated with an increase in community COVID-19 cases, and this was seen independent of the country or their particular mitigation strategies,” Hoeg said.

“We had evidence prior to the pandemic that masks were largely ineffective at preventing community transmission of influenza and other upper respiratory viruses, and we did not obtain any new, high-quality evidence during the COVID-19 pandemic that masks are an effective mitigation strategy in schools or outside of schools,” Hoeg said.

The masking guidance from the CDC and the six-foot social distancing standard were arbitrary, according to Hoeg.

“It wasn’t necessary, and it wasn’t evidence-based. We should have, by default, been keeping our schools open. But instead, we required these non-evidence-based mitigation strategies as a prerequisite for getting our children back in school. That ended up being very harmful.”

The Next Pandemic

Republican and Democratic leaders on the subcommittee, both physicians, found agreement on the need to keep children in school as much as possible in the event of another pandemic.

“As we look back, I believe each state and district should have asked themselves, ‘Schools need to be open. Students need in-person instruction. How can we achieve that?’” Chair Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) said.

“Our goal must be to make our schools resilient for the next highly contagious, lethal virus so that we can keep schools open, protect students and teachers, prevent outbreaks, and reduce transmissions of the virus in our communities,” said Ranking Member Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.)

“I believe that one of the lessons we learned is that keeping children in school is important,” Mazyck said.

“To do that, we need to bolster the supports that they need in order to be in school, learning. They need public health. They need support from specialized instructional support personnel to help them be available for their learning.”

Mazyck said that personal protective equipment, disinfectant supplies, vaccines, and proper ventilation are all necessary for keeping children in school.

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