Next time, listen to parents

Kids are reaping the consequences of school shutdowns

By Patrick McIlheran

May 12, 2022 – Just what did the pandemic lockdowns cost us? Day by day, the tally rises.

“I remember crying every night and not knowing what was going on, and I felt so alone,” a Wisconsin student, Sophia Jimenez, told CBS News’ “60 Minutes” in a report aired this week.

The network singled out Milwaukee because, it said, Wisconsin has the country’s fifth-highest increase in adolescent self-harm and attempted suicide. The rate of such pathology has nearly doubled since before the COVID-19 lockdowns.

When Sophia stopped eating, CBS reports, her parents took her to a hospital, where she stayed for two weeks until a bed opened up at a psychiatric facility. “What did you guys lose during the pandemic?” the reporter asked the girl. “Myself,” came the reply.

The reporter goes on to describe a new clinic at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and talks to therapists about overwhelming needs. No doubt: A doubling of children’s self-damage in two years would overwhelm any system. Resources need discussion.

It’s also worthwhile to ask how we can avoid repeating that which led to the doubling of such horrors. What could we have done differently?

We should ask that in defiance of the dismissive reflex in fashionable quarters. The New York Times last spring was commanding parents to “stop talking about the ‘lost year,’” since “teenagers and tweens will be fine” if only adults buck up. “Kids are resilient and kids will recover,” insisted teachers union boss Randi Weingarten in 2021, even as she was lobbying the Centers for Disease Control to keep schools closed.

With help and luck, kids will recover. Many are resilient, though the past two years of testing just how high they bounce seems ill-advised.

“I was like this shut in,” a Milwaukee boy, Austin Bruenger, told CBS’ reporter about the lockdown. “The only way you could see people is through, like, phones or your family that you live with.” He wound up imagining flinging himself off buildings or using a kitchen knife to kill himself. He was nine.

How much better had he — and millions of other children — not been turned into shut-ins for a year. They perhaps wouldn’t have been beset by “feelings of grief,” as focus groups of high schoolers told researchers from the University of Wisconsin and the Medical College of Wisconsin. We might not have seen the share of children who lag in reading leap so high. The plight of poor children might not have worsened as badly since, as researchers at Harvard just reported, that plight worsened only in places where schools were closed. It wasn’t the pandemic that hurt; it was the locked schools.

But who could have known?

Well, by the summer of 2020, the CDC, which was noting that the virus presented relatively low risks to children compared to the flu: It was saying that in-person learning should resume. By June 2020, UW researchers warned that moderate to severe depression had leapt 3.5 times among student athletes as lockdowns forced kids’ physical activity to plummet. By mid-2020, it had become clear and was widely reported that COVID-19 presented little risk to young people or to their teachers, since the young appeared unlikely to spread the disease.

Yet it wasn’t until spring 2021, after half a year more of turning its students into shut-ins, that Milwaukee Public Schools began returning to in-person learning (it wasn’t in-person full time until 18 months after the lockdown began). Other public school districts were only a few weeks quicker. Madison Metropolitan School District didn’t begin even a part-time return for high schoolers until late April 2021.   

And for what? In all, 16 Wisconsinites 19 or younger have died of COVID. Every lost life is a tragedy, but these numbers pale in comparison to the number of Wisconsin minors killed in car crashes, neighborhood violence or other causes.

In total, 79 suffered a trip to intensive care. The danger to children was “extremely low,” as NPR was reporting by spring 2021. As researchers at Johns Hopkins University put it this January, while lockdowns “had little to no public health effects, they have imposed enormous economic and social costs.”

Such as that near-doubling of the rate of self-harm and suicide attempts in children who were turned into involuntary hermits for at least a year.

Well, mistakes were made. How not to make them again?

Do not forget that while authorities faced no resistance to closing schools early in the pandemic, parents raised questions as the closures dragged on. They could read what the CDC was saying by summer 2020.

So, while Madison and Milwaukee and many other districts stayed out as the 2020-21 school year began, many parents judged — correctly, we now see — that the costs outweighed the benefits. Schools that are accountable not to political processes but to parents proceeded to serve them, opening up to teach their children. Enrollment in such schools — in private and charter schools — surged. And while public schools that did open were skittish about remaining open, private schools were more steadfast, the Wisconsin Policy Forum found, with only a few sending parents scrambling by closing up again.

This isn’t because private school teachers or administrators are smarter or care more. Smart, caring people work in all kinds of schools. Rather, I suggest, there is a difference in who is heard. The pandemic, the lockdowns, the questions parents had about what they saw in classrooms when classes went virtual, all have made it clear that incumbent government-run schools listen to many interests before they listen to parents. That’s no abstract point to parents taking a child to an ER for a mental health crisis.

If we want to make our schools more resilient for the next crisis, those schools must be more responsive to parents. Wisconsin has a mechanism: its school choice programs that let parents take their state school aid to whichever school best serves their children.

It is crucial to make sure that all families, including middle-income households, have access to those programs, and that those programs are funded equitably, to give families the power to use a school that will stay open when their children need it.

Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.


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