COVID school shutdowns: four years on

Somewhere around four years ago, public school systems around the country began “temporarily” shutting down as a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States had a plan, an allegedly best in the world plan, to deal with a pandemic. Well…


I recall the fiasco unfolding in my home state of Arizona. A panicked consensus in favor of school shutdowns grew based upon…other panicked moves to close schools in other states. Perhaps that is unfair. We also had the famed epidemiological sagacity of a group called “Arizona Educators United” to inform us.

This column read in part:

Arizona Educators United on Sunday issued a call for Ducey and Hoffman to close the schools for the rest of the year.

“Without immediate, large-scale, serious interventions, like closing schools for the remainder of the school year, the coronavirus outbreak is projected to overrun medical facilities by early to late May,” the group said.

Panic did not grip everyone in Arizona. I will never forget speaking to a friend of mine who worked in the Arizona Department of Education. I glumly noted that school closure seemed inevitable, and she told me “I would not do it.” When I asked her why, she responded:

“How are you going to REOPEN them?”

How indeed?

Fifty-thousand or so Arizona students disappeared from school. Further evidence that students interpreted closures as having made schooling optional can be found in data showing that the rate of chronic absenteeism more than doubled for Arizona students. Academic achievement declined. It was even worse in many other states.

John Chubb and Terry Moe explained that the central problem with K-12 is politics, and the COVID-19 fiasco made that sad fact blindingly obvious. The task ahead lies in recovery and in fiasco-proofing your family as best you can for the future.


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BY Matthew Ladner

Matthew Ladner is executive editor of NextSteps. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.

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