The National Address We Should (but Won’t) Be Hearing on the Crisis in Education

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona answers questions during a Senate Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., September 30, 2021.
(Greg Nash/Reuters)

On the menu today: CBS chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford calls out “the crushing impact that our COVID policies have had on young kids and children”; what we should be hearing from the U.S. secretary of education right now, as schools prepare to return to classes with the Omicron-variant wave upon us; and my colleague Ryan Mills reports that veterans groups trying to rescue those still trapped in Afghanistan say “the State Department is doing little to help them rescue American allies, and in some cases it is actively blocking their efforts.”

Sounding the Alarm on America’s Children

From CBS News’ Face the Nation last weekend, featuring CBS chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford:

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, I want to get to underreported stories as well. Jan?

CRAWFORD: Oh, I — just for me, I mean, my kids hear me rant about this every day, so I might as well tell you guys it’s — it’s the crushing impact that our COVID policies have had on young kids and children. By far the least serious risk for serious illness. But I mean, even teenagers, you know, a healthy teenager has a one in a million chance of getting, and dying from, COVID, which is way lower than, you know, dying in a car wreck on a road trip. But they have suffered and sacrificed the most, especially kids and underrepresented at-risk communities. And now we have the Surgeon General saying there’s a mental health crisis among our kids. The risk of suicide — girl suicide attempts among girls now up 51 percent this year, black kids nearly twice as likely as white kids to die by suicide. I mean, school closures, lockdowns, cancellation of sports. You couldn’t even go on a playground in the D.C. area without cops scurrying — getting — shooing the kids off, tremendous negative impact on kids, and it’s been an afterthought. You know, it’s hurt their dreams, their future learning, loss, risk of abuse, their mental health. And now, with our knowledge, our vaccines. If our policies don’t reflect a more measured and reasonable approach for our children, they will be paying for our generation’s decisions, the rest of their lives. And that, to me, is the greatest underreported story of the past year. [Emphasis added.]

Note that Crawford’s comments were in the online-only extended version — not the broadcast portion of the program. This doesn’t necessarily mean that CBS “edited out” her comments, as the entire portion about underreported stories was not in the main broadcast. But considering the considerable reaction to Crawford’s comments on social media, perhaps this topic deserves more discussion on CBS News.

Jonathan Slater, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at New York–Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, wrote in the New York Times yesterday:

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With Omicron, it is clear that anxiety is starting to spiral out of control even further, in a sort of PTSD response, as people are flashing back to traumatic memories of the beginning of the pandemic. Until a few weeks ago, I could almost feel that things were getting better. Kids were back in school both locally and at college, playing sports and attending after-school activities, and everyone seemed to be adapting to what clearly is an endemic. Now what?

In the past several weeks, I have gotten more and more calls from extremely depressed and overwhelmed college students who are taking medical leaves from school and need me to email professors or fill out the necessary paperwork. I can’t find clinicians near their colleges to treat them, and their college health services are often limited in the amount of regular mental health care they can provide.

If we had a better secretary of education than Miguel Cardona, we would be hearing a national address that would go something like this:

My fellow Americans, I regret to inform you that when it comes to educating our children, we lost a lot of ground during this pandemic. In many parts of the country, kids didn’t enter their schools for an entire year — in some communities, almost 18 months. If online or “distance learning” worked well for your child, I’m glad to hear it. But the evidence is irrefutable that distance learning simply didn’t work for far too many of our kids and teenagers.

While many of our public schools remained closed for more than a year, many of this country’s private schools reopened much earlier, with measures in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19. These contrasting efforts demonstrated that far too many public schools remained closed for far too long. As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded, “although outbreaks in schools can occur, multiple studies have shown that transmission within school settings is typically lower than — or at least similar to — levels of community transmission, when prevention strategies are in place in schools.” The fact that we saw so little transmission within school settings this fall, and then saw cases increase with the arrival of colder weather and the more contagious Omicron variant, demonstrates that with the proper precautions — like staying home when you feel sick! — we can keep schools open and operating.

Many of our children need to interact with their teachers and peers in person. They find it easier to focus and concentrate when everyone else around them is doing the same. They are energized by group work and projects, invigorated by running around in gym class and at recess, and engaged by educational experiences not easily replicated at home, like art class, band, orchestra, drama, engineering and shop class. What’s more, the process of being in a school helps kids learn how to be a good human being — making friendships, playing on sports teams, mentoring and being mentored. Human beings are social animals, and the pandemic spurred us to deny kids the most basic of human experiences.

There is abundant research in the field of criminal justice demonstrating that solitary confinement in prison often wreaks harmful and long-lasting effects on the human mind and body. This is a controversial act to inflict on a convicted violent criminal; it is insane to enforce mandatory minimization of human contact among our children for long stretches.

It is time to repair the damage and make up for lost time as best we can.

This administration will use every tool it has to discourage schools from closing for non-physical-health or weather-related reasons. While we prioritize mental health, we see no good reason to close schools, with little warning to students or parents, for vague explanations like “the need for mental-health relief.” Going to school is good for kids’ mental health. Stability is good for mental health. Knowing that you’ll be going to school, Monday through Friday, every week, except for holidays and inclement weather, is good for mental health. A predictable routine builds habits.

With the Omicron variant currently spreading quickly across the country, many school administrators may feel the inclination to cancel school and return to online or distance learning for a period. This administration opposes closing schools again, within reason. If too many teachers are out sick and not enough substitutes are available, then the school may have to close for a day or a couple of days.

But we must not develop the reflex of sending children home and closing schoolhouse doors at the first sign of trouble.

Even with the Omicron variant, we can educate our children safely. First, the threat to the health of children and teenagers is very small, which is not to say it is nonexistent. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that “severe illness due to Covid-19 is uncommon among children”; in all of the states, the hospitalization of children for Covid-19 amounted to one-tenth of 1 percent to 1.8 percent of all cases. If your child catches Covid-19, it’s likely the illness will not feel any different from the usual winter colds and bugs that every child comes down with sooner or later. For that small minority of children who develop severe cases, there are more treatment options than ever before. What’s more, according to pediatricians and public-health experts, “preliminary data suggests that compared with the Delta variant, Omicron appears to be causing milder illness in children, similar to early findings for adults.”

When it comes to our colleges and universities, we are not going to force grown adults over the age of 18 to stay in their dorm rooms, under restrictions that we do not impose on any other American citizen who has not been convicted of a crime. If the Federal Bureau of Prisons can permit furloughs for convicted felons, then college students can go for a jog or grab a cup of coffee.

The experience of South Africa suggests that the wave of vases driven by the Omicron variant will intensify quickly and subside quickly — and along the way, perhaps do us a favor by displacing the more virulent Delta variant. Within a couple of months — or perhaps just weeks — the Omicron variant will be in our rearview mirror. And then our efforts to make up for lost time will need to kick into an even higher gear. Afterschool programs, before-school programs, mentoring programs, summer school — we need to give families the maximum number of opportunities to regain ground and lost momentum. We need to be honest with students and parents about that lost ground and work together to develop an individualized game plan to get our kids back on the right track.

You may have heard some recent controversial comments such as “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” or “I don’t really understand this idea that parents should decide what’s being taught.”

Let me blow some people’s minds with the shocking revelation that parents have always been involved in America’s schools, and that education is always a partnership between parents and teachers. Only a foolish administrator or teacher would ignore or reject a parent who has strong feelings about what their child is being taught. This doesn’t mean every parent and teacher will always agree on the curriculum, and we shouldn’t expect every dispute to be resolved easily or happily. But every parent who shows up at a school-board meeting to weigh in on the curriculum is a parent who cares. Please, give me tens of millions of parents who care about what their children are being taught! It beats apathy every day of the week! We in the education profession should listen to parents, see if they have a legitimate objection or argument, and try to find a solution that is in the best interest of the student. We should be humble enough to recognize that having the answer sheet to the test doesn’t mean we always have the answers to every problem in education, and to heed parents’ concerns with an open mind.

We’ve allowed parents to opt their kids out of the more sensitive areas of sex education for generations now. After listening to parents, if we still think the curriculum choice is correct, our message must be, “This is what we’re teaching; we recognize you feel these concerns, and if you find it unacceptable for your child, we’ll honor your desire to have your child outside of the class when this portion of the curriculum is taught.” Parents are not the enemy, or an obstacle to be overcome. They are the most powerful ally any educator could ever want. Antagonizing them only worsens the problem.

It is time to get back to the business of educating America’s children. Elementary-school kids need to get prepared for middle school; middle-school children need to get prepared for high school; teenagers in high school need to get prepared for college and trade school; and young adults in college and trade school need to be prepared to join the workforce. At every step of the way, we need to help the next generation develop the knowledge, skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving needed to ensure our nation’s future. Let’s get to work.

Alas, we’re probably not going to get that kind of message from this administration.

U.S. Rescue Efforts in Afghanistan Have ‘Slowed to a Crawl’

Just about everything Ryan Mills writes, short of his grocery list, is a must-read, but you’re really going to want to read today’s scoop about the Americans and allies left behind in Afghanistan: “Efforts by dozens of private rescue groups who have focused their energy on saving other American allies in the 20-year war — people who typically don’t have the paperwork for a direct path into the U.S. — have slowed to a crawl. Leaders of some of those groups who spoke to National Review are pointing fingers at the U.S. Department of State. They say the State Department is doing little to help them rescue American allies, and in some cases it is actively blocking their efforts. They’re calling on President Joe Biden’s administration to do more to help them save the people they once served with.”

ADDENDUM: A comment that did make Face the Nation last weekend, from CBS News national-security correspondent David Martin: “I think one of the biggest dangers for 2022 is that countries like China, Russia, Iran are going to look at what happened in Afghanistan and decide the U.S. is a spent force and we can roll. And that’s not a good mindset to be in. ”

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