Why Is Everyone So Sure They Know What Harmed Children During the Pandemic?

by Neil H. Buchanan
What about the children?  Won't somebody please think of the children!  With all due respect to the fictional Mrs. Lovejoy, the problem is not that no one is thinking of the children.  The real problem is that people have no idea how to think intelligently about the children (or much else).  Combine that with general innumeracy, and we almost always find that the people wringing their hands about the fates of our young people are engaged in projection, wishful thinking, or simple political opportunism.

In my writing over the years about intergenerational justice (one of dozens -- if not hundreds -- of examples here), I have noted many times that anyone can turn any argument into a "for the good of the children and grandchildren" heart-string tugger.  And I do mean anyone making any argument.  Just this week, reports emerged about the mayor of a small town in the state of Washington who is a believer in a conspiracy that goes by the letter between P and R.
Explaining why his cause is righteous, he wrote (14:04 mark here) that his movement was "[e]xposing the evil and corruption of the last century in hopes of leaving a better future for our children and grandchildren."  That is, of course, why they need to stop the cannibalistic pedophile Soros-led Democrats.  Do it for the kids!
Every cult and every mass populist movement sees itself as saving the future.  And even in the more mundane confines of public policy, smarmy politicians say over and over again that those evil budget deficits must be reduced, lest we destroy "the next generation of Americans."  That particular quote was from Sen. Joe Manchin, and he offered it as part of his explanation for opposing investments in future generations' well-being.  How, he asks, can we possibly consider extending the child tax credit -- which has reduced child poverty and thus directly improves the lives of the next generation -- when it might be paid for with borrowed money (even though it would not have been, in the bill that Manchin single-handedly killed)?  The horror.

The latest fad among vapid politicians and the chattering class is to talk about the damage supposedly being done to children by school shutdowns or masks (or any other political target that they might want to drag out).  The evidence does show, tragically, that many children have been doing worse over the last few years.  Do we know why?  Could it perhaps be less simple than advertised?

We start with the Republicans' decades-long war on labor unions.  The last effective and reasonably strong American unions from a political standpoint are public employees’ unions (which the Supreme Court kneecapped four years ago in Janus v. AFSCME) and especially teachers' unions.  When school leaders concluded that (especially before vaccines were available) it was too dangerous to teach in person, it did not matter that they were responding to a public health crisis or that absolutely no one wanted to suspend in-person teaching just for the fun of it.  If the teachers were saying that we needed to do something new and different, under historically changed circumstances, that was all the "lazy teachers and their unions" demagogues needed to make it all about the schools.

As so often happens, the demagogues on the political right were able to frame the debate for everyone else, including non-opinion journalists.  Even good reporting is now filtered through the lens of students being harmed by school shutdowns.  For example, an interesting piece in The New York Times a few weeks ago describes the isolation of at-home learning, which (again) is absolutely not anyone's first choice.  But even looking only at the headline and sub-headline, we are told that "Students Feel the Weight of Pandemic Uncertainty," and "The pandemic has changed children."
What is wrong with that framing?  Notice that the words "students" and "children" are used interchangeably.  But this story is not about “students,” except inasmuch as children are required to be students.  The article is in fact about kids having a thoroughgoing tough time during the pandemic.  And the writers do a good job of showing how difficult things have been, especially the stress on children of living in (as we have been saying in every context for the past two years) "these difficult times."
As one of my friends (who has a Ph.D. in statistics, but this is hardly a doctorate-level concept) reminded me recently, we simply have no control group against which to compare what we are seeing with children's struggles today.  We have no idea whether the problems are caused by the changes in the way children are being taught, or changes in their home lives, or (as the article in The Times explains) the general stress of living through a pandemic.  Clearly, no one -- certainly not the teachers -- wanted to go through what we have gone through.  The question is whether we would have had better outcomes during a horrible pandemic if we had done things differently.
What statisticians refer to as time-series analysis (as opposed to cross-sectional analysis) is inherently imperfect because we cannot run a series of experiments to see what would have happened with different policies.  History gives us one reality, and everything else is counterfactual.  That does not mean that we can learn nothing from the evidence, but we do need to understand that "we did X, and bad thing Y happened" is sloppy at best.  As I noted, this is not Ph.D. material.  It is simply the old "post hoc fallacy": I wore my lucky socks, and my team won the big game.
What would a counterfactual reality have looked like?  What we truly want to know is whether kids would be doing better if they had continued to go to school throughout the pandemic.
But even before we get to that question, there is a threshold issue regarding what exactly we are complaining about.  In a recent segment on one of the cable talk shows (I think it was "Morning Joe," but it could have been any of them), panelists were talking about the latest controversy over removing mask-up rules in public schools.  As the discussion wore on, the graphics department splashed various statistics on the screen showing increases in youths who report considering suicide, depression, and other problems.

All of those problems are, of course, heartbreaking.  Is it not odd, however, that these very same talking heads would have been using the same statistics to talk about reopening schools, if schools had remained closed?  That is, why tie mask-up rules to those bad outcomes, when we do not even know which responses to the pandemic might be the X in "we did X, and bad thing Y happened"?  Is X "schools closed down" or "students had to mask up"?  It could be that both had negative effects, but that is conjecture at best.  At least the theory behind "not being in school causes isolation and thus bad effects" has some logical oomph.  Why would we think that having to wear masks would have any such effects?

Returning to the core issue, however, our sample size is 1.  We have been hit with a pandemic, and we responded in various ways.  The meaningful comparison is not to "how things were before the pandemic" but "how things would have gone had we done things differently."  Those who say that "closing down schools" (and/or imposing mask-up rules) caused the problems have to be able to say what would have happened had we not closed the schools temporarily.
The reporters for the Times article that I referenced above build their story around a high school girl who caught a case of Covid and has recovered.  She says that she is glad to be back in school, but she adds: "There are students who don’t wear their masks, or complain about wearing a mask, and I nag them.  People say I’m like another staff member at our school."  Has the stress ended because schools are open, and masks are no longer required?  Hardly.

Now consider the alternative reality writ large.  How do we know what would have happened if we had insisted on sending kids to school throughout the pandemic?  Why are we sure that that would have gone well?  Without society-wide mitigation measures in place, how would schoolchildren's parents and grandparents have responded?  Knowing that children are likely to catch Covid and thus be infectious even as they are asymptomatic, what would home life be like?  What if a grandparent died shortly after visiting the seemingly healthy children who have been going to and from school?

Children are often emotionally attached to teachers, in many cases even inadvertently calling them "mom" or "dad," which is understandable.  Would students' mental health have been better if they were in a school environment in which their favorite teachers were falling ill and dying -- again, especially when the science would tell them that the teachers were catching Covid from their asymptomatic students?

Is it not possible that kids are depressed and upset because millions of people have died around the world, almost a million of them in the US, in the past two years?  Young people have been understandably stressed out about climate change and other major issues, and progress on the environmental front has stalled.  Meanwhile, the country's political system is collapsing, and one of our major parties is all in on violent insurrection.  Might that be stressful, especially to young people who will have to live in a one-party autocracy, possibly for decades?  One might think so.

This is why I noted above that we are talking about children who happen to be students.  They are young people living in a strange new world, a world that has changed the experience of being students as only one part of changing the experience of being a young human in the 2020's.  Being a student is a large part of a child's experience, but it is hardly the only part (and maybe not even the most important).

This is not to say that school shutdowns did not apparently have identifiable effects on children.  It is to say that we do not know whether those harms were worse or less bad than what would have happened on the road not taken.  And I am also not saying that there are no statistical methods available that could allow us to infer the differences in effects.  If there were evidence that the states that opened their schools earlier than other states subsequently saw decreases (or smaller increases) in depression and so on among children, that would be meaningful (but not entirely dispositive, for other reasons).  I do suspect that if such evidence existed, it would have dominated the airwaves (especially on the political right).

But there are also reasons to think that not being in school can have upsides.  After all, it is not as though children's experiences at school are all sweetness and light.  "Education Week" reported last month:
New national research from Boston University using internet search data suggests bullying declined during the pandemic—not just in schools, but online as well—and harassment hasn’t entirely returned even after students started to come back to campus.
Now that is counterintuitive.  One would think that school bullies (who are, of course, watching the examples set by adults like Ted Cruz) would have been increasing their aggregate bullying in recent years, especially as they act out in response to the stresses of pandemic life.  When they could no longer stuff nerds into lockers at school, one might expect them to have amped up the cyber-bullying.  But no.  The two types of bullying are complements, not substitutes.  Focusing only on the negatives of being out of school is even worse than lacking a control group.

Again, it is possible that the best statistical research will eventually suggest strongly that the effects on children of school shutdowns (and maybe even mask-up rules, though that seems unlikely) are worse than they would have been if we had done things differently.  This, however, is a situation in which people who are motivated to make baseless attacks on schools -- and we should not forget that a man is governor of Virginia today because he lied repeatedly about what is happening in schools -- are engaged in the worst kind of lying with statistics.
Our kids deserve better.  Won't somebody please think of the children!