Closed schools harm children. Children are COVID’s lowest-risk demographic, but our nation’s elementary and high-school students have suffered the most throughout the pandemic thanks to negligent and callous policymakers.

COVID-era school closures and abysmal remote learning endanger children academically, emotionally and physically. Closing schools leads to devastating learning loss, significant mental health issues, and higher rates of suicide and obesity. As David Leonhardt wrote in The New York Times, “American children are starting 2022 in crisis.” He reports that “Children fell far behind in school during the first year of the pandemic and have not caught up”; that “Many children and teenagers are experiencing mental health problems, aggravated by the isolation and disruption of the pandemic”; that “Suicide attempts have risen, slightly among adolescent boys and sharply among adolescent girls” and that “Behavior problems have increased.”

Parents pleading for schools to stay open are finally receiving bipartisan support from political leaders and media commentators. In December, President Joe Biden declared, “We can keep our K-through-12 schools open, and that’s exactly what we should be doing.” The president recently stated, “We have no reason to think at this point that Omicron is worse for children than previous variants. We know that our kids can be safe when in school.” The Democratic mayors of Chicago and New York City voiced their agreement.

Despite this emerging consensus, an alarming number of school district leaders are still closing K-12 public schools. The Burbio School Tracker reported 5,225 pandemic-related school disruptions during the first week of January. Many additional schools closed in early January in response to winter weather, staff shortages, teachers’ union work actions and union-encouraged “sickouts.”

Even in areas with open schools, parents and students are subjected to complicated and excessive COVID testing and quarantine requirements, which keep students out of classrooms and extracurricular activities. Fear-based and unscientific school policies result in silent indoor lunches or outdoor lunches in freezing conditions, canceled sports and activities, escalating mask requirements and miserable children.

CNN host Brian Stelter recently queried, “shouldn’t we be doing more to protect children by letting them live normal lives? Are we really going to let the kids suffer even more? And are the facts about COVID getting through to the people who need to hear them?”

Yes, we should be doing more to protect children and support parents. School closures leave parents scrambling for last-minute child care and cobbling together educational resources for their isolated children. Research by Corey DeAngelis and Christos Makridis found that parents experience more mental health issues when schools are closed. Their research using Census Bureau data found that “A full transition to remote instruction was associated with an increase of 5 to 10 points in the likelihood of parents reporting mental-health issues most days in the previous week.”

In addition to professing support for open schools, policymakers should empower parents to leave their closed public schools and enroll their children in alternative educational options. Rather than continue to funnel unprecedented levels of funding into irresponsible school systems, state and local leaders should fund students directly. Governors, state legislators, and county leaders could redirect existing K-12 education funding or use federal state and local fiscal recovery funds provided under the American Rescue Plan to create flexible education savings accounts. Allowing parents to access K-12 funding directly through such accounts enables them to escape the chaos of COVID-era education systems and swiftly address their children’s educational needs.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey recently paved the way for other governors by launching the Open for Learning Recovery Benefit program, which provides up to $7,000 for income-eligible students experiencing school closures. Families can use the funding for child care, school-related transportation, tutoring and school tuition. According to the governor’s office, “If a school closes for even one day, students and families who meet the income requirements can utilize the Open for Learning Recovery Benefit Program—allowing students to access instruction that best meets their needs.” State leaders eager to support parents and inspire public schools to open should follow his lead.

Children deserve a path out of learning loss and deteriorating mental health. Educational freedom empowers parents to find an educational environment that prioritizes academic instruction and healthy childhood experiences. We must keep schools open and give parents options.