What did we think closing public schools for over a year would produce?
A ten-year old child and his older brother, 14, turned themselves in to Philadelphia police this week, implicated in the recent death of an elderly man. The young boys, and presumably their parents, probably had little choice; video and photo stills of the kids’ faces have been plastered all over the news and throughout the community for two weeks.
The entire chilling crime, in which a 73-year old man walking home the night of June 24, 2022, was first accosted, then beaten to the ground and set upon by a group of seven teenagers wielding a parking cone, was caught on surveillance video.
The perpetrators of the crime, who can be plainly seen on the video, were obviously very young from the first frame. Just how young would shock even veteran prosecutors in a city so suddenly beset by violent crime, the Mayor himself recently voiced his job dissatisfaction before adding he couldn’t wait to leave office and, presumably, Philadelphia forever.
As of today, two more suspects in the highly-publicized beating death of 73-year old James Lambert have turned themselves into police; a 13-year old girl and a 14-year old girl.
In nearby Baltimore on July 9, long-simmering tensions between a group of overly-aggressive young “squeegee workers” and Baltimore motorists sick of being targeted, harassed, threatened, frightened, robbed and occasionally beaten for failing to give generously, came to a head when a driver confronting the group was shot and killed.
While Baltimore citizens have expressed outrage, there was no shock: Residents have long known the situation was a powder keg.
In the heartland, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, though she is too savvy a politician to say so, has probably felt the same way as Philadelphia’s Mayor a time or two this year.
“I don’t enjoy the Fourth of July, I don’t enjoy the Democratic National Convention, I didn’t enjoy the NFL Draft,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney told reporters frankly at a press conference Monday. “I’m waiting for something bad to happen all the time.”
Chicago, under Lightfoot’s leadership, has experienced an explosion of violent crime so severe, even the Boeing Company has joined the mass exodus of corporations, companies and families fleeing the weekly, and worsening, violence in Chicago.
In Lightfoot’s Chicago, teenagers shooting and killing other teenagers, and often bystanders even younger than themselves, has become so common, the Mayor has banned the underage from Chicago parks after 6 pm.
Not that the curfew is doing any good. Violent crime is still skyrocketing, shootings have reached an all-time record high and no one feels safe going downtown anymore. Even Chicago’s theater district in dying on the vine after a high-profile shooting outside the theater shocked patrons a month ago.
By and large, the perpetrators of these crimes seem to be very young. It is often the young who are press-ganged by older criminals into offending. Even when crime suspects aren’t caught, it’s still obvious they must be very young.
Only a young criminal who has seen too many movies would dare rob a store and afterward dump emptied-out cash registers on the lawn of the Illinois Governor’s mansion.
Across the U.S., crime is rising to the point that chain stores from Walgreens to Starbucks are closing locations, leaving entire areas that are no longer safe for employees or customers.
How many of these crimes are being committed by juveniles? I might be years before we see any solid data. How many of these juvenile crimes are occurring in places where public schools stayed closed the longest?
Chicago and San Francisco, two cities which closed public schools to in-person learning for longest, are certainly suffering. But correlation isn’t causation. It might be 10-years, or even 20- depending on politics- before we find out- for sure- if long-term public school closures led directly to an increase in juvenile crime.
But we don’t need to go that far, do we? We don’t really need to wait for all that data crunching. We already know the truth; or we wouldn’t have public schools in the first place.
For us, as a society, the jury is already in on the merits of public education. Long ago, Americans collectively decided an educated populace would be more peaceful, more prosperous, and generally more enjoyable for everyone concerned.
And then COVID19 happened.
We panicked, and forgot all about this fundamental, foundational bedrock underpinning our entire civilized society- whereupon we tore it out by the root in some communities, leaving low-income families in a lurch, at-risk youth at the mercy of criminals, and a generation of young people deeply disenchanted with a society that doesn’t seem to care what happens to them-as long as they don’t die of COVID.
How low-income parents, especially those whose jobs were deemed “essential” and, therefore, worked a full-time schedule during the whole of COVID19 and counting- survived prolonged public school closures is a tale of 10,000 tears.
There are no shortage of first-hand accounts of the experience; school board members were actually recalled in sky-blue San Francisco as a result of SF public schools remaining stubbornly shuttered long after class was back in session everywhere else in the country.
To say nothing of around the world, where kids didn’t experience as much learning loss as American public school students. Prolonged public school closures, longer than 2-weeks, made the U.S. an extreme outlier, and not in a good way.
It’s hard to pretend we don’t notice the results of all that isolation, lack of access to educational resources, learning atrophy and mental illness issues which we are, collectively and personally, noticing in the youth of America.
And that’s to say nothing of the millions of at-risk, low-income public school students over the age of 14, who left high school one afternoon in spring of 2020 and never went back- not even to online classes, not even once.
“We have failed this generation of kids,” is a sentiment echoing from a number of new quarters suddenly, including some industries and professions just now speaking up for the first time against such measures, and some still anonymously at that.
“CDC failed to balance the risks of Covid with other risks that come from closing schools,” one such anonymous CDC scientist recently told Dr. Marty Makary and Dr. Tracy Beth Høeg. “Learning loss, mental health exacerbations were obvious early on and those worsened as the guidance insisted on keeping schools virtual. CDC guidance worsened racial equity for generations to come. It failed this generation of children.”
Either we are a society which believes a robust public education system is the single greatest force against generational poverty, criminality, gang violence, inequity and privation, or we don’t.
Are teachers essential workers?
Well, that depends: Do you like violent crime? Poverty? Exploitation? Unhealthy, mentally ill and poorly acclimated teenagers held to a higher legal standard and tried as adults?
Without public education, these things are exactly what a society gets stuck with- which is why we have public schools in the first place.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)