FORT WORTH, Texas (Tribune News Service) — If you’re anything like me, you’ve done your best to blot out the COVID era from your memory.
It doesn’t seem productive to ruminate on the days spent in fear and uncertainty - fear that public officials insisted should consume us; “hunkering down” in our homes; our children’s smiles hidden from us behind masks that even Dr. Anthony Fauci now appears to concede were (as applied) of nominal benefit.
But the effects of our COVID response, which was in many cases destructive, still linger. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the realm of education.
In parts of the country, including Fort Worth, some students lost a year (or more) of full-time in-person school. In certain cases, that was by choice; some parents worried that schools would be super-spreaders — they weren’t — and voluntarily kept them home.
For other students, going to class in-person was simply not offered as an option.
Frequent “exposure” quarantines that needlessly kept healthy kids at home for weeks at a time only made things worse.
Learning loss abounded, in reading and math especially, and for black and Latino children in particular. Those losses are still felt deeply in places like Fort Worth, where students in an already struggling district are still climbing out of an academic hole.
Children’s mental health also suffered; isolation and depression ballooned, the effects of which have yet to be fully realized.
None of this is fun to reflect on, but all of it was re-hashed last month during a congressional hearing which featured one of the key players behind prolonged school closures: Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Testifying about her organization’s role in a COVID-response oversight hearing, the union boss insisted that she and her minions were working to keep schools open from day one.
“We spent every day from February on trying to get schools open,” she said. “We know that remote education was not a substitute for opening schools.”
Indeed, there is little doubt that she and her cohorts knew the costs of prolonged virtual school, especially for vulnerable communities. That much seemed obvious.
There is little doubt also, that she, as an influential union leader, did everything within her power to keep schools closed as long as possible.
Indeed, her own words, tweets and interviews throughout the pandemic, as well as her behind-the-scenes lobbying of the CDC to keep schools closed in the name of “protecting teachers,” belie her claims.
And recent revelations indicate that Weingarten and her team had a direct line to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and White House officials who even adopted some union-proposed language in their guidance for school reopenings, which slowed full reopening of in-person instruction for students.
I won’t belabor the depths of deceit reached in her testimony. You can watch it yourself.
But Weingarten’s falsehoods speak to another effect that school closures and other pandemic mitigation has had on the public: a loss of trust in our public schools.
This reality has manifested in many ways, but most obviously in declining enrollment in public schools. Nationwide, enrollment has dropped 3 percent.
Locally, those numbers are even starker.
Currently, Fort Worth ISD has almost 73,000 students, well below 2019 levels. While the decline began before COVID, it increased significantly as a result of the pandemic, so much so that the district has had to make substantial staffing cuts.
According to reports, Superintendent Angelica Ramsey expects that decline to continue until the district hits a plateau of about 55,000 students.
I’d argue that on some level, this is not a terrible thing for education.
Distrust in public school leadership has increased public interest in charter and private options; it’s helped make the case for school choice a policy priority.
It may even be why the appetite for education savings accounts in Texas has never been higher.
This silver lining aside, distrust in public institutions is seldom good. So it’s important for us to understand how and why public trust in schools cratered. Even if it means recalling that less than pleasant time.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send emails to email@example.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency. © 2023 Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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