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Congress has a responsibility to investigate the costs of prolonged school closures

The Hill logo The Hill 10/29/2020 Dan Lips, Opinion Contributor
a living room filled with furniture on top of a wooden table: Congress has a responsibility to investigate the costs of prolonged school closures © Getty Images Congress has a responsibility to investigate the costs of prolonged school closures

As October comes to a close, millions of American school children remain out of school. Many large school districts have no timeline for reopening. Several large districts, including San Francisco and Howard County, Md., plan to remain closed until 2021.

As evidence mounts that schools are safely reopening across the country, Congress has a responsibility to investigate the costs of prolonged school closures on American children and families. Understanding these costs will inform decisions about reopening and help policymakers design emergency education relief measures to help children recover.

In August, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis held a hearing on the challenges of safely reopening America's schools. I testified along with former Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The Committee's majority was largely focused on the public health risks of reopening and resources that would be needed. The educational, physical and emotional well-being of children was a secondary concern.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that the costs of school closures are more serious for children than the risks of reopening.

Let's start with the direct educational costs.

Researchers warn that children are falling further behind every week that schools remain closed. Moreover, disadvantaged children are suffering the most. Stanford researchers recently estimated that the spring school closures caused children to lose at least one-third of a year's worth of learning in reading and more than two-thirds in math. If schools stay closed through December, McKinsey projects that low-income children will have lost more than a year's worth of learning.

But learning losses are only a starting point. Children are also suffering physically and emotionally.

Child welfare advocates have warned that prolonged school closures increase child abuse, since teachers often spot and report when children are being victimized. The lack of reporting combined with the increased time kids are spending at home means that many are likely suffering abuse or neglect in silence.

For example, California data show that child abuse reports are down 28 percent lower than last year. The National Sexual Assault Hotline has received a record number of contacts and half are from minors. A 7-year old Chicago girl was recently seen suffering horrific sexual abuse during an online lesson. How many other tragic instances of abuse are occurring while the computer camera is off?

Experts also worry that prolonged pandemic-related school closures are harming children's mental health and increasing the risk of self-harm. A June CDC survey revealed increased mental health problems among Americans during the pandemic, particularly among young adults. Among that group, a quarter had "seriously considered suicide" within the past month. Health experts warn parents to be on the lookout for increased anxiety and depression due to social isolation and other stresses from the pandemic.

The pandemic has also increased the number of children living in poverty, and school closures are a part of the problem. The national poverty rate increased from February to September. Columbia University researchers found that increasing poverty rates have been "particularly acute for Black and Hispanic individuals, as well as for children."

Prolonged school closures are forcing many parents to choose between work or providing care for their children. The September jobs report showed that American women were leaving the workforce at a faster rate than men. Women are nearly three times more likely than men to be out of work to provide childcare.

In short, prolonged school closures are harming millions of children and parents, and children from disadvantaged homes are suffering the most.

What's particularly tragic about the current situation is that it was avoidable. By summer, public health data from other countries showed that it was largely safe to reopen schools, particularly for younger children, while providing virtual learning options. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued school-reopening guidance and strongly advocated, "that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school."

Congress now has a responsibility to urgently investigate the rising cost of school closures.

For starters, Congress should require the CDC to quickly analyze current public health trends from the school districts that have reopened.

Congress should also investigate how or whether states are complying with Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act reporting requirements while schools are closed.

Government watchdogs should conduct oversight of state and school district compliance with federal education laws which require appropriate educational services for disabled children, the homeless, foster children, and children learning the English language, among other at-risk student groups.

The ongoing COVID-19 school closures will unfortunately have lasting consequences for a generation of children. Congress must quickly gather facts and inform the public to guide schools' reopening plans. This necessary oversight will also reveal how much work must be done to help America's children recover from the pandemic.

Dan Lips is a visiting fellow with the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity.

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