In 1972, future Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera rose to national prominence for his expose of the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island. In his report, Rivera documented an environment of horrifying neglect and abuse. Naked children with severe developmental disabilities were on the floor moaning, some of them smeared with feces. Rivera described the children as “human vegetables in a detention camp.” I first watched the short documentary when I started teaching special education eight years ago. I was surprised to learn that before 1975, only about 1 in 5 children with disabilities in the United States attended public school, and many were in overcrowded state institutions that provided no education or training.
What the Willowbrook report made clear to me was that education rights for students with disabilities were relatively new and had been won through years of advocacy. The passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was supposed to guarantee them a federal right to a free and appropriate education. But in March 2020 these children were abruptly cut off from basic services, and their legal rights were effectively revoked. At the time, I was teaching low-income students of color in the Bay Area. Most of my students did not have internet access at home and many of them relied on school for meals, health services, and counseling. What could be more “essential,” I wondered, than school?
Before the closures, my district was already struggling with special education teacher vacancies, especially in schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods. Staffing shortages and the lack of experienced teachers had clear effects. It was common for me to get students in sixth grade who had only mild or moderate disabilities but who could not read at all. After a few months it would become obvious that these students were more than capable of educational growth but simply hadn’t received adequate instruction.
Learning to read can change the trajectory of a child’s life, but the older children get, the more difficult it becomes for them to learn basic literacy skills. Having seen it first hand, I knew that the learning loss caused by school closures would be devastating. Even kids in general education who fall behind are rarely able to catch up. By the time students reach sixth grade, children in the poorest school districts are already four grade levels below children in the richest districts. Third grade students who are not proficient in reading are four times less likely to graduate from high school, and according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, as many as 21% of U.S. adults are illiterate or functionally illiterate.
Because the academic and social progress of my students was at stake, I followed the COVID-19 data closely from the beginning. And I found that school closures were irrational and counterproductive. According to the most comprehensive studies to date, COVID’s survival rate among children and adolescents appears to be around 99.995%. The child mortality figures for COVID are similar to the respiratory syncytial virus (about 500 annual pediatric deaths), for which schools have never been closed. One Swedish analysis looked at COVID data from March to June 2020 when Swedish schools were open without masking. The analysis found that not a single child died with COVID during that time period. A study from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that in California hospitals, COVID cases for children between May 2020 and February 2021 had been overcounted by 45%. Several other studies found that children were far less likely than adults to spread the virus, that the effectiveness of closures for containing spread was, at best, highly unclear, and that closing schools had no effect on community transmission. Nor were closed schools linked to lower COVID mortality.
When it became clear that California public schools would stay closed despite the paucity of evidence that closures were effective, and the far greater amount of evidence that schools could safely reopen, I tried to volunteer to teach kids with severe disabilities in person. But my district and union would not allow it. I emailed other teachers I knew from my union and cited statements from organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics that were urging schools to reopen. State and local leaders kept referring to rising cases and deaths to justify closures, but later our county would reveal that it had actually overcounted total COVID deaths by 25%. The county dropped hundreds of “incidental” COVID deaths (in the case of car accidents, for example) from its register, meaning the figures that had been used to rationalize school closures in my district were not even accurate.
But I struggled to find other teachers who agreed with me. When I mentioned to colleagues that schools were open in Europe or Florida, they looked at me as though I was somehow a threat. Before school closures, I had nothing but respect for other teachers and for the leadership of the teachers union. But in my view the treatment of children during the COVID era has been a moral stain on the profession. During over a year of online learning, an unforgivable crime was committed against public school children and families. And as it unfolded, everyone around me said it was acceptable, necessary, and even good.
As we approach Thanksgiving 2021, the crime is still being committed, only in a slightly different form. As many adults are permitted to resume relatively normal lives, the belief that children and schools are particularly dangerous vectors of viral spread persists, subjecting millions of kids to some of the harshest COVID restrictions. Students who were in kindergarten in March 2020 are now in their third school year of interrupted education, a period of time that spans almost a quarter of their lives. The experiences these students are having now, influenced more than anything else by school COVID protocols, will shape the adults they become.
National data has confirmed that remote learning was an abject failure and, for many students, the equivalent of no school at all. Districts across the country saw an enormous increase in failing grades, and first graders are now significantly behind in reading. Nationally, it is estimated that students fell behind by 3-6 percentile points in reading and by 8-12 percentile points in math, with younger students falling furthest behind.
These learning losses represent years of life stolen. Literacy and education levels have been linked to longer lifespans. This correlation is not purely economic—better health is also associated with the behavioral and social impacts of education. In addition to academic damage, childhood obesity, which has profound long-term consequences, also increased severely when students were confined to their homes. According to CDC data, adolescent mental health visits to the ER increased by 31% in the United States, and suicidal thoughts and attempts by teenage girls rose by over 50% compared to 2019. So I was eager, as you might imagine, to get back to school in person. When we did return in April 2021, though, I found that the school environment had been transformed.
In order for students to access the campus, parents had to complete a health screening through an app every morning. If parents did not complete the screening, students were asked health questions at the gate. Some of my students who struggled with comprehension and language skills clearly did not understand some of the questions, but were made to give definitive answers about their COVID status anyway. In class, loud air purifiers and masks made it hard for us to hear each other. Staff members were continuously squirting hand sanitizer onto students’ palms, and I was given at least one new bottle every day. After lunch, students’ masks were falling off and drenched in sweat, at which point they were clearly useless.
All these protocols at first seemed comical and absurd to me, but eventually I came to feel that there was something deeply insidious about training children to be hyperaware of a disease that posed no meaningful threat to them. Masks have become a constant reminder of potential transmission, and mask mandates have given rise to a wide array of new educational materials, such as dystopian singalongs and call-and-response routines that teach young children to cover their faces in order to keep their friends safe. In some schools, students are rewarded with “mask breaks” and can be suspended for mask noncompliance. Back-to-school activities that once had names like “All About Me” now have names like “Me Behind the Mask.”
Although many U.S. public health experts have dismissed concerns about the long-term effects of face coverings, developmental research pre-COVID consistently affirmed the importance to children of the human face. Just minutes after birth, babies show a preference for looking at faces above anything else. Face time is known to be crucial to early childhood development, and facial expressions are considered to be a kind of universal language. In educational settings, young children practice recognizing these expressions from their classmates, teachers, photographs, and pictures in order to learn empathy and social skills. When children begin to read, they look at their teacher’s mouth to see how he or she makes new sounds.
Many European countries do not have mask mandates in schools, especially for children under 12. All over Europe and in many red U.S. states, millions of kids are going mask-free without putting themselves, their friends, their teachers, or their families at risk. A new analysis from the British Medical Journal has been touted as evidence that masks reduce COVID incidence by 53%, but results from existing randomized trials actually point to a relative risk reduction of only about 10%. The authors of the BMJ review state that “risk of bias across the six [mask] studies ranged from moderate to serious or critical,” and further analysis in the BMJ determined “the quality of current evidence would be graded as low or very low, as it consists of observational studies with poor methods.” Again, there is currently no proven correlation between mask mandates in schools and lower rates of COVID. When children wear masks, they often touch them frequently, leave large gaps, and get saliva on their masks—all practices the CDC warns against. In the absence of data that proves masks are necessary for child safety, these unregulated pieces of fabric merely teach kids to fear each other and their environment.
School testing and quarantine policies further reinforce a constant sense of danger. The CDC’s quarantining guidelines for schools have led to missed school days for thousands of students. In the first two days of the school year, more than 5,600 Chicago public school students were quarantined, and in Atlanta over 23,000 students and staff were quarantined just weeks into the school year. It is considered a foregone conclusion that mass testing is necessary—but there is no evidence that shows testing to be more effective than simply telling students and staff to stay home when symptomatic. These protocols have created a highly unpredictable atmosphere in many school districts, and vaccine mandates for kids only threaten to cause further instability.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced forthcoming vaccine requirements for all California students, and some districts like Los Angeles and Oakland are moving forward with early mandates for students 12 and up. (As of this writing, vaccines for ages 12-15 remain under Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA.) If students do not get vaccinated by January 2022, they will be unenrolled or transferred to an “independent study” online learning program.
Existing mandates for diseases like polio, varicella, diphtheria, and measles were issued many years after the vaccines for them had been fully approved. They are also for diseases that mainly affect children. In contrast, COVID mandates for kids are being introduced amid growing evidence that protection from the vaccines we have now wanes over time, and that they do not prevent transmission. Many school districts have vaccination pop-ups on campuses, and the CDC has encouraged teachers to promote vaccines to children. This speaks to a clear breakdown of the barrier between education and health policy.
Schools are designed to prepare kids for the society and labor market they will enter as adults. Thus, in the 19th century, schools were organized around a “factory model” focused on efficiency and order (which largely persists, unfortunately). This is also why authoritarian regimes believe schools to be crucial in securing ideological loyalty from younger generations. In education, there is an official curriculum that transmits explicit skills and knowledge, and a “hidden curriculum,” which imparts a set of implicit norms and beliefs. The hidden curriculum often goes unstudied and is enforced through daily routines. Today, COVID policies are the hidden curriculum, teaching millions of American students fear, anxiety, shame, and conformity.
There have always been arbitrary school rules that I, like many teachers, didn’t like but went along with anyway. But mask mandates were a step too far. One time I sat in the hallway for 10 minutes with one of my students who had taken his mask off and didn’t want to put it back on. He told me his mask was making it difficult for him to breathe. I couldn’t find an honest justification for why he should have to put it back on, other than that it was “the rule.” There are only so many times a teacher can tell her students, “I have to follow these rules too,” before it starts to sound like, “I’m just following orders.” I thought about the staff physicians at the Willowbrook State School who had overseen and covered up the abuse of so many children with disabilities, and about what I would have done if I was in their position. In June, when the school year ended, I decided not to continue teaching.
During the previous year of school closures I watched as students experienced increases in depression, anxiety, gun violence, and encounters with law enforcement. My own experience during this time was characterized by the feelings of guilt and disorientation that accompany moral injury. I believe that schools today are continuing to psychologically harm students by indoctrinating them into a lie—the lie that in school they are fundamentally unsafe and that only strict obedience to arbitrary authority can protect them.
Before everything changed in March 2020, lunch was always my favorite time of day. Many of my students would come back to my classroom to eat, and if I had time we’d play Jenga or Uno. I never imagined that any of this would change. I have hundreds of pictures from school that show kids’ smiling, uncovered faces, but these images now seem like they’re from another life. Back then, school was messy, kids’ hands were always dirty, and every surface was covered in germs. Everyone was breathing on each other. We never worried about putting each other at risk, and that was OK.
Alex Gutentag (@galexybrane) is a writer and Tablet columnist based in California.