Why is this so hard to understand?
Last night, President Joe Biden began his State of the Union Speech with some words about the pandemic:
Two years ago, COVID had shut down our businesses, closed our schools, and robbed us of so much.
Today, COVID no longer controls our lives.
It was surprising to hear Biden blame COVID — the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus — for extended U.S. school closures, because there is now an emerging global consensus that extended school closures weren’t actually necessary. Last summer, education leaders from the world’s leading multilateral organizations were explicit that school closures were a “policy choice” and “not inevitable”:
Importantly, the data from the OECD, UNESCO, UNICEF & World Bank survey show no relationship between the extent of school closures and COVID-19 infection rates across countries. This shows that school closures were not inevitable but, rather, a policy choice, often framed by a lack of institutional capacity to reconcile educational provision with health and safety. As a rule, well-functioning school systems with high PISA scores typically saw shorter school closures than those with poor PISA performance. This has further amplified the educational gap across countries.
Biden’s language last night was particularly extreme, because “two years ago” was February 2021. By then, schools had already reopened in all of the EU/EEA/UK countries, about 50 percent of the United States, and even parts of Latin America. And, of course, Sweden never closed schools serving the vast majority of its student population.
For some reason, in February 2021, COVID was only keeping schools closed in places like Los Angeles, California and Clayton County, Georgia. That really makes you wonder if the issue was COVID or, perhaps something else, such as dysfunctional politics and governance.
Why did some schools never close? Why did some schools reopen very quickly (e.g. Denmark, Norway) while other schools reopened very slowly (e.g. California, Washington)? Because politicians and education leaders made different choices.
We now know that reopening schools very quickly was the right choice and keeping them closed for a very long time was the wrong choice. Biden implicitly defending the wrong choice in his speech last night was remarkable.
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