The U.S. House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education recently held a hearing on “Generational Learning Loss: How Pandemic School Closures Hurt Students.” The findings of this committee reveal the urgent need to counter learning loss and set students up for future academic success. 

Led by Chairman Aaron Bean (FL), the subcommittee discussed the impact of prolonged school closures, learning loss, systemic failures in public schools, spending on education during the pandemic, and school choice. In his opening remarks, Bean stated: “The mass shuttering of schools throughout the pandemic is one of our greatest education policy failures in our nation’s history.” He continued by citing National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, detailing the stark drop in academic achievement across the country. In 2022, the NAEP assessment revealed that scores decreased significantly in all subject areas. 8th-grade math scores were at their lowest point in two decades, and 8th-grade reading, U.S. history, and civics scores plummeted to their lowest mark since the national tests were administered in the 1990s. 

As Rep. Bean noted, school closures affected almost 93% of K-12 students, adolescent mental health issues spiked, hospital visits rose, and the suicide rate significantly increased. Low-income and minority students were disproportionately affected. 

In contrast, Ranking Member Suzanne Bonamici’s (OR) remarks dismissed the grave consequences of school closures during the pandemic because “parents and teachers knew that remote learning could hinder students learning, especially in the absence of digital equity.” She claimed that “Democrats have delivered on our commitment to helping students, parents, and schools overcome this learning time,” a statement that ignores the billions of “emergency” federal education funding wasted by school districts.

While multiple factors contributed to learning loss, extended school closures exacerbated previously existing achievement gaps, damaging tens of millions of students. Dr. Nat Malkus, senior fellow and deputy director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, opened the witness portion of the hearing and cited a Brookings study, explaining that “there is no relationship—visually or statistically—between school districts’ reopening decisions and their county’s new COVID-19 cases per capita. In contrast, there is a strong relationship—visually and statistically—between districts’ reopening decisions and the county-level support for Trump in the 2016 election.” Unsurprisingly, all students lost valuable instruction time, but the districts and students who prioritized getting back to in-person learning lost significantly less than their peers who were kept online. 

Mr. Darrell Bradford, president of 50CAN, testified that “Twenty years’ worth of learning has been erased. This is a generational tragedy.” Bradford presented striking information about the teachers unions and how their actions negatively affected student learning: “Despite early guidance from several state departments of education that emphasized the importance of in-person instruction and the relationship between a student and a teacher, educators protested school reopening with scythes and coffins.” He highlighted how the Chicago Teachers Union asserted that “the push to reopen schools was ‘rooted in sexism, racism, and misogyny.’” Despite the unions’ fear-mongering, Catholic schools across the country proved that keeping classrooms open could be done safely and effectively. 

Finally, Catherine Truett, the North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction, highlighted North Carolina’s successful initiatives to combat learning loss. Truett launched the Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration in February of 2021 and implemented district-run interventions to accelerate student learning. North Carolina identified the learning loss of every single student, determined which subgroups were most affected, and allocated funds better to address learning loss. 

Following the witnesses’ testimonies, questions and answers revolved around the data surrounding school closures, the consequences of learning loss, and what happened to the billions of dollars spent on education during the pandemic. Several moments from the Q&A stand out.

Malkus explained that tracking local and state mask mandates was one of the best predictions of the duration of closures. Additionally, school closures disproportionately affected poor, minority, and low-achieving students. On average, closures lasted longer for those students, and they were affected more for each week closed. Statistically, school closures were highly correlated to Democratic districts. Malkus theorized that fear among leadership and schools caused unnecessary and prolonged closures; Bradford added that teachers unions had a significant role in keeping schools closed and students from learning. According to Truett, it is going to take years for the majority of students to recover and unfortunately, some students might never regain their lost learning time. 

Responding to a question on how state and local leaders could ensure resources reach kids without encouraging government overreach, Malkus called for more accountability and clear guidance and advocated for school choice. He explained that “no school is going to work for every child…I would say [the learning loss following the pandemic] presented itself as an America where parents are thinking much more critically about matching their child’s aspirations and where they attend school.” 

Chairman Bean closed by saying: “If we truly want to make a difference, let’s empower parents. If we’re going to put more money in, let’s let parents choose where that money is spent. So maybe if it’s a private school, if it’s public school, a charter school or homeschool, or whatever it is, let’s let them make that choice.” 

While the hearing did not result in any concrete consensus among the members, it provided much-needed insight into the severity of union-backed school closures, long-term learning loss, and the necessity of expanded school choice. Future congressional hearings should focus on holding politicians and school districts accountable for the use of emergency federal education funding and highlighting initiatives that invest in the success and well-being of students.