School districts are “losing contact with thousands of students, from Philadelphia to Houston to Los Angeles,” according to news reports. What is going on here? 

Jonathan Butcher, senior policy analyst for the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, joins The “Daily Signal News” podcast to discuss the impact on families and children when schools remain closed during COVID-19.

We also cover these stories:

  • By a vote of 12-0, the Senate Judiciary Committee sends Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett to the full Senate for a confirmation vote.
  • In an interview with “60 Minutes,” President Donald Trump says he hopes the Supreme Court will “end” the Affordable Care Act and that he will announce his health care plan after it rules.
  • Fully 70% of Americans support legal unions for gay and lesbian couples, according to a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with the Brookings Institution.

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Rachel del Guidice: We’re joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by Jonathan Butcher. He’s a senior policy analyst for the Center for Education Policy [and the] Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation. Jonathan, it’s great to have you with us on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”

Jonathan Butcher: Great to be here. Thank you.

Del Guidice: You just had a piece come out on The Daily Signal looking at the impact on families of schools staying closed. Can you tell us a little bit about your piece?

Butcher: Sure. So, we are now at about the end of what would normally be the first academic quarter for the 2020-21 school year, and around the country we still have many large districts especially only offering online instruction.

Schools are not having students come back in person, especially in places like Los Angeles, Chicago. Even in states like Maryland, where the governor has said that schools can plan to reopen, some of schools in large cities like Baltimore are not open for in-person learning yet. So it’s made this first quarter feel like the longest school year ever so far.

Del Guidice: How has schools continuing to stay closed, as they are, impacted kids in particular?

Butcher: We’ve seen a couple of things. I think, first, we’ve had parents protesting, demonstrating in places like San Diego, Baltimore, many places in between, to call for schools to allow students back in person, or at least give them the option to return in person.

And you can imagine why, right? I mean, parents are looking not only for their children to be successful and finding that these online platforms just are not helping students get on top of whatever the content schools are trying to cover, but also because parents need to get back to work. They’re trying to set themselves up for a sense of normalcy again for their families.

So you have on the one side, parents in these areas where schools are closed, they are calling for at least the option to get back in person.

And then secondly, we are seeing evidence now increasingly come in, both in the U.S. and around the world, really, that schools do not appear to be superspreaders of the virus.

What we’ve got so far, especially, and most interestingly, coming from Brown University, which has this database of more than 1,000 schools, almost 1,300 schools, and they’re looking at the case rates in the schools that have become a part of their project, and we have confirmed case numbers of about … 0.14% of students in schools in that database. Among the teachers, we’re talking about 0.4%.

So it’s not affecting students, not affecting the teachers, based on the best evidence that we have. And that’s important. It’s important for families and for school leaders to know.

Del Guidice: Well, you basically answered my next question, Jonathan, but what would you say to parents who are concerned that reopening schools could mean that kids get sick or spread COVID through communities?

Butcher: Like Heritage has been saying since the end of the last semester, since last spring, it really should be up to local schools to make decisions in consultation with parents as they talk to local health professionals about what is best for their community.

But the whole premise behind that is that school leaders would be thinking of what is best for their community and would be taking into consideration what the best evidence is. And again and again, we have evidence coming in showing that schools are not becoming a dangerous place for students.

I was talking about that Brown University dashboard just a few minutes ago. When you sort that tool using private schools that are open in person, we also find extremely low confirmed case rates around the numbers that I was mentioning before. We’re talking 0.2%, and in that neighborhood.

So even schools that are open, the evidence that’s coming in shows that they are, for now anyway, places that parents do not need to be fearful about sending their children.

And I think that’s key, because this is where teachers unions are beginning to gain a foothold. I think they’re capitalizing on this idea that parents have some anxiety, and school leaders may also have some fear about what may or may not happen, and so they are making demands about what schools may need to do.

Most recently, Fairfax County called on the district schools to stay closed until August of next year, August of 2021. So they’re trying to capitalize on this fear, and that’s unfortunate.

We don’t need fear right now. We need to be looking at the facts that we have, and understanding that if students are not doing well with this online platform, they need to have the option to be back in person.

Del Guidice: You raised how parents have led protests in favor of reopening schools across the country. Why are schools and even some politicians still essentially campaigning against reopening schools?

Butcher: It’s hard to say.

I think that, again, when in July, when the American Federation [of] Teachers, one of the nation’s largest teachers unions, released a statement saying that they would support local chapters, or that they wouldn’t oppose local chapters holding strikes or walkouts if schools tried to reopen, that led pretty quickly to what became in August a day of resistance, where groups of teacher union chapters around the U.S. listed demands and conducted walkouts and protests, even though schools weren’t open yet.

And these demands, … not all of them had to do with reopening schools. I mean, some of the things they were talking about were defunding police and paying off delinquent mortgages and rent payments, and things like that.

So this issue of political opportunism sort of creeps in. And I think as we were saying before, they’re capitalizing on the uncertainty and fear that is happening in many of these communities, and that’s not what families and students need right now.

What they need is for school leaders to be telling them that they’re looking at the latest evidence and they’re going to be making decisions about what is best for students.

And look, as I was writing in The Daily Signal in this piece, thousands of students were lost by school districts when they went online in the spring. And right now, we do not have good evidence that they have been found or logged back on again. And that’s really troubling.

I mean, when you have students, especially in urban areas, especially in high poverty areas, who are not getting any sort of instruction at all, … for everyone—taxpayers, policymakers, parents, and families, as well as educators—that should be a big concern.

Del Guidice: Jonathan, in your research, have you heard any personal stories or even just scenarios of what is happening to students in particular as they continue to basically be, in a lot of ways, just locked out of the classroom?

Butcher: Well, I have some good news. I mean, I think what we’re happy to report are some of the positive things that we’ve seen. I’ve talked to families in North Carolina who have used their education savings account to pay for the continuation of the education therapies and even private school tuition that they had before the pandemic set in.

With these education savings accounts, they’re available in five states, North Carolina being one—Arizona, Florida, some of the others—the parents get a portion of their child’s funds from the state funding formula, and they can buy educational products and services, including education therapies and private school tuition. They can use their accounts to pay for those.

And with that flexible service, parents have been able to not perfectly, but in a large degree, continue the child’s progress through both school and with the different therapies that they may need. So that’s encouraging.

I’ve talked to families that have formed independent learning pods, where they’ve gathered with families in their neighborhood, or talked with parents they know, and brought their children together each day during the school day to continue instruction and decide on what the content may be, either through what the district is offering or on their own, and that’s exciting.

I think that’s a sign of a civil society response to a problem that didn’t require government to act. So now that should be hopeful for all of us, right? Parents are going to take matters into their own hands if they need to. They know what’s best for their children and they’re acting accordingly.

Del Guidice: You point out in your piece that federal officials are not going to withhold spending from schools that remain closed to in-person learning. What would you say is the reasoning behind this?

Butcher: Well, I don’t think they’ll have to in order for schools to feel the effects of staying closed for a long period of time.

Based on what we know from the reports of enrollment data in this first quarter or the beginning of this new school year, we’re finding large districts in particular—places like Nashville; Washington, D.C.; down in Florida; Orange County; as well as Los Angeles—we have pretty noticeable numbers of students, we’re talking in the thousands, … who are not enrolling and they’re reporting decreases in student enrollment. And especially in the younger grades, especially in kindergarten and elementary school.

So that is going to be the sign for school officials as they think about going back and reopening. If they reopen and the students don’t come back, I think that message needs to be sent to these school officials, that the longer they stay closed, the more students either will not be able to be found or parents are just going to make decisions to take their children out and find a quality option for them.

Del Guidice: You also mentioned how school leaders have ignored medical evidence and parent and student needs for months. What would you say, Jonathan, can be done to turn this around?

Butcher: For the schools that do decide to stay online with virtual instruction, it is well past time for them to look at best practices from existing virtual schools.

There are systems that have done this very well for a number of years, like K12 Inc., Connections Academy, just to name a few. There are school districts that have partnered with programs like Khan Academy to deliver content online, and they’ve figured out how to do this in a way that does engage students and that does help them.

So I think as districts have tried to do this a bit on the fly, now we’re several months into this, right? It is very reasonable to expect that they’d be looking for better ways to have connections with students and finding some of these best practices, such as regular interaction between students and their teacher, and not just delivering assignments online, for one example.

So that would be a start, right? Let’s find some best practices.

For two, I think that schools do need to be looking at the evidence that we have coming in from other countries, as well as in the U.S., showing that if you follow some very basic protocols about hand-washing, keeping appropriate distance between students, all of these different things about masks and certain situations, all of the basic things that we’ve now been talking about for months, we can mitigate, at least, if not suppress, widespread outbreaks.

And so I think that providing that option is essential right now. It’s essential that schools at least give families the option.

And the third thing I would just add as a bonus is that some states have actually created scholarship options for students.

Oklahoma and New Hampshire in particular were able to create new private school opportunities for students in certain situations, and that is what we should be seeing from state leaders.

We need state officials now to be looking at ways to give families access to schools that are open.

Del Guidice: Well, Jonathan, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast and breaking this down. We do appreciate having you with us.

Butcher: Thank you.