As I’ve noted in this space, researchers have found no meaningful correlation between coronavirus lockdowns and per-capita deaths. Yet many state and local officials are either implementing or considering new lockdown policies to combat rising COVID-19 case numbers.
At best, such policies will offer only temporary relief—at the cost of destroying small businesses, depriving schoolchildren of a real education, and damaging the mental and physical health of untold numbers of people.
These costs were made horrifyingly clear during and after the initial lockdowns last spring. According to the “Local Economic Impact Report” that Yelp released in September, nearly 164,000 U.S. businesses on Yelp closed between March 1st and August 31st—and 60 percent of them closed permanently.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that “symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the United States during April–June of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.” In a June CDC survey, fully a quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds said they had seriously considered suicide over the previous 30 days, as did 30 percent of adults without a high-school diploma.
Not surprisingly, we also have evidence that COVID lockdowns have exacerbated the opioid epidemic. “More than 40 states have reported increases in opioid-related mortality as well as ongoing concerns for those with a mental illness or substance use disorder,” according to the American Medical Association.
In Virginia, for example, total drug-overdose deaths jumped by 39 percent in the first half of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. In Oregon, total overdose deaths spiked by nearly 70 percent in April and May of this year compared with the same months last year. In Denver, total overdose deaths rose by 83 percent, and fentanyl-related overdose deaths rose by 354 percent, year over year, during the first six months of 2020. In San Diego County, fentanyl-related overdose deaths rose by 126 percent, year over year, during that same timeframe.
“In some of our counties, there are more deaths from overdoses than there are from COVID-19,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said on October 23.
Of course, it’s impossible to know precisely how much the lockdowns have contributed to surging overdose deaths. But there’s no question that they have made many Americans feel more isolated, anxious, and despondent than ever before.
In some places, hard-won progress on drug abuse has been thrown in reverse. Just look at Clark County, Indiana, which is part of the Louisville metropolitan area.
“We were down about 40 percent, as far as overdose deaths and ER visits for overdose,” Clark County Health Officer Dr. Eric Yazel recently told journalist Mitch Legan. “And then once COVID hit, you saw that trend right back up again.”
In May, Clark County experienced “the most overdoses since the county started keeping track of the data roughly a decade ago,” Legan writes. By the end of October, it had already suffered more overdoses this year than it did in the entirety of 2019.
All of this has compounded the tragedy and misery of COVID for families across the country.
Prolonged school closures have made things even worse. The closures may have been justified back in March, when the virus first erupted. Today, we understand it much better—and the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that schools should remain open for in-person learning.
Even the New York Times has acknowledged that schools pose little risk of community spread.
“So far,” the Times reported on October 22, “schools do not seem to be stoking community transmission of the coronavirus, according to data emerging from random testing in the United States and Britain. Elementary schools especially seem to seed remarkably few infections.”
The paper went on to quote an infectious-disease expert from Boston University: “The more and more data that I see,” said Brooke Nichols, “the more comfortable I am that children are not, in fact, driving transmission, especially in school settings.”
As NPR has noted, multiple international studies “show no consistent relationship between in-person K-12 schooling and the spread of the coronavirus. And a third study from the United States shows no elevated risk to childcare workers who stayed on the job.”
Yet many U.S. public-school districts have relied mostly on distance learning since March. How’s that going? To cite just a handful of examples:
In District of Columbia public schools, “The number of kindergartners hitting early literacy targets this fall dropped by 11 percentage points, compared with kindergartners who took the exam at the beginning of the 2019–2020 academic year,” the Washington Post reports. “First-graders experienced a drop of 12 percentage points, and second-graders saw a decline of seven percentage points.”
In Fairfax County, Virginia—just outside of D.C.—the share of middle- and high-school students who received at least two failing grades during the first quarter of the 2020–21 academic year increased by 83 percent compared with the first quarter of 2019–20. Among students with disabilities, the increase was 111 percent.
As the end of the first quarter approached in St. Paul, Minnesota, failing grades accounted for close to 40 percent of all grades given to high-school students.
“The 40 percent is very high. It’s about double what we might experience in a typical year,” St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard told a local broadcaster. “We will find many students who may be at a legitimate zero. They may not be able to check in, do any assignments. They may have just turned away completely, completely disengaged, and that’s tragic and sad.”
The story is depressingly similar in California.
“Districts around the Bay Area are reporting sharp spikes in failing grades so far this fall during a term that has largely been taught online over computers to students stuck at home,” reports the Mercury News.
In America’s second-biggest city, failing and near-failing grades have “surged” among lower-income students, says the Los Angeles Times.
Beyond their academic effect, school closures have also reduced access to dental care for many poor kids. As the New York Times observed in September, “The closures have suspended regular dental health visits in schools from rural Oregon to New York State, according to specialists in the field.”
Given all that, it’s encouraging that New York City has decided to reopen its elementary schools. Yet far too many other districts continue to use a remote-learning model that has failed disastrously, especially for the neediest students. It’s long past time to get children back in the classroom.
In a larger sense, it’s long past time for policymakers to abandon the lockdown approach and embrace a more targeted COVID strategy focused on protecting the most vulnerable and at-risk members of society. The last nine months have shown us that the costs of lockdowns far outweigh the benefits.