Washington think tank highlights consequences of pandemic-era remote learning

(The Center Square) – The free market Washington Policy Center think tank on Tuesday released a study that says the state’s closure of schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in…

(The Center Square) – The free market Washington Policy Center think tank on Tuesday released a study that says the state’s closure of schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in significant learning losses for children, mental and psychological stress, and reduced lifetime earnings. 

“Governor [Jay] Inslee responded to the national COVID health crisis by closing the public schools in Washington state to in-person instruction from March 2020 to September 2021, and allowing them to re-open sporadically the fall of 2021,” the 19-page study’s introduction stated. “Governor Inslee also mandated the use of masks and other face covering, and implemented social distancing rules in daycares and schools from March 2020 to March of 2022.”

The decision to close public schools for such a long period of time significantly affected Washington’s 1.1 million public school students, according to the study.

“The evidence is overwhelming,” study author Liv Finne, director of the WPC’s Center for Education, said in a press release. “Closures harmed student learning, many suffered damage to their mental health, and reduced lifetime income and economic damages are a real possibility. For two years these kids had damages accumulate.”

The study pointed to statewide assessments administered last fall and published earlier this year by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction that showed 70% of students failed to meet the standard in math, while 52% of students failed to meet the standard in English.

“With these tests we can measure and compare student achievement and systemic success or failure year over year,” Finne said. “Dismissing these test results won’t erase the impact the COVID closure policy had on these kids’ lives. We need to acknowledge them and prevent closures from happening again.”

The study claimed closing schools long terms caused many children with special needs to regress and lose what they had learned in the past.

There were psychological impacts as well, the study noted.

Isolating teenagers from social contact with peers for nearly two years increased their levels of anxiety and stress, according to the study, which noted such problems might persist with long-term consequences.

The study referenced a June 2021 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report: “In May 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Emergency Department visits for suspected suicide attempts began to increase among adolescents aged 12-17 years, especially girls. During February 21 – March 20, 2021, suspected suicide attempt Emergency Department visits were 50.6 percent higher among girls aged 12-17 years than during the same period in 2019; among boys aged 12-17 years, suspected suicide attempt Emergency Department visits increased 3.7 percent.”

Another possible long-term consequence: reduced lifetime earnings.

“For example, in June of 2020, researchers at McKinsey and Company warned that closing schools through January 2021 (seven months) would inflict on students ’a hurt that could last a lifetime,’ particularly on low-income Hispanic and black students, increasing existing achievement gaps by 15-20 percent,” the study said. “This report also predicted that two to nine percent of high school students would drop out, that social and emotional isolation and anxiety would increase, and that U.S. students may lose, on average, a year’s worth of full-time work in lifetime earnings as a result of COVID-relating learning losses.

“McKinsey estimated that the earnings losses for this entire K-12 cohort of students would translate to $110 billion annual earnings losses, a GDP loss of $173 billion to $271 billion a year, a 0.8 to 1.3 percent reduction.”

The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction took strong exception to WPC’s study.

“This non-academic blog post being marketed as a ‘study’ is the latest political opinion piece produced by the Washington Policy Center, an ideological policy advocacy organization,” Katy Payne, OSP communications director, told The Center Square via email. “This blog post is riddled with factual inaccuracies, is not grounded in research, is lacking citations for many of their claims, and is consistent with the ideology of Liv Finne and of the WPC: expanding school privatization.”

When asked for specifics on factual inaccuracies, Payne noted that WPC’s “key findings,” said that “Governor Inslee closed public school buildings March–June 2020, not ‘nearly two years.’ Under #8 – students are not being ‘automatically promoted to the next grade,’ and there is no citation showing where this claim is coming from.”

She concluded, “WPC continues to provide a platform for Ms. Finne to share her personal opinions about public education without performing any fact-checking, despite the regularity in which her blog posts perpetuate factually inaccurate, grossly misleading, and blatantly political storylines disguised as ‘facts.’ Ultimately, this is a political piece consistent with WPC’s mission. They have an ethical responsibility to share their top donors so their readers and the public can understand who is funding the propagation of their ideology.”