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A Congressional Hearing and a Representative's Perpetuation of a False Narrative
On Tuesday, I testified before Congress as an expert witness in a hearing titled, “The Consequences of School Closures: Intended and Unintended.”
As most Americans have observed over the years, Congressional hearings are often a performance, with each of the participants assigned a role ahead of time. Yet while mostly a scripted affair, sometimes there are surprises or intriguing exchanges, and narratives emerge.
One specious narrative of particular interest—and perpetual frustration—for me is many Democrats’ continued insistence that the real world evidence of open schools in Europe not leading to calamity was somehow not relevant to American schools.
Representative Kweisi Mfume, a Democrat from Maryland, stuck to this bogus talking point with such fidelity that he even delivered it with a patronizing tone. Mfume began by saying he wanted to “set the record straight.” And that he “would caution all of us against Monday morning quarterbacking.”
In case no one remembers, Covid and those days of Covid were dark, dreary, desolate, and disconcerting. All the evidence we have now we did not have at the time of Covid.”
While I appreciate Mfume’s alliterative talents, the four Ds he uses to craft a fog-of-war stage setting are a red herring. It can simultaneously be true that the days were dark and dreary etc. for some people and that evidence of safe open schools existed and was legitimate. The “we didn’t know” excuse doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Of course we gained more evidence as time passed, but by the middle of May 2020 we had widespread evidence from Europe that open schools did not lead to any sort of overt surges in transmission.
Mfume went on, his argument devolving further:
“I would also caution against this notion of always comparing what we did in the U.S. against what they did in Europe to suggest how somehow or another that it should have been the same. The United States is one country, Europe is 44 nations. So let’s be real careful about how we compare apples to apples or oranges to oranges and make sure that we’re talking about the same thing here.”
Some viewers of the hearing, including Anthony LaMesa, who has consulted on education issues for the World Bank, observed the speciousness of Mfume’s statement.
Indeed, we should not look at the US and Europe as monoliths. There are innumerable American cities and towns with similar demographics, population densities, etc. to cities and towns throughout Europe. We can’t simply pretend this away.
Though we didn’t have a direct exchange, the next time I had the opportunity to speak, I responded to Mfume’s comments.
“With all due respect to the other Congressmember,” I said, referring to Mfume, “I think it’s entirely appropriate to look at what happened in Europe and elsewhere. Those are human beings. They’re children, they’re in schools.”
I went on to say that European schools do not all have sophisticated HVAC systems, many are in very crowded cities, and so on. The fact is, whatever differences there are between American schools and those throughout Europe there is no evidence that, in aggregate, those differences were epidemiologically meaningful.
This was a very myopic, American-centered idea, I said, that nothing else was happening outside of our bubble. Mfume would have us believe it was sensible to prioritize assumptions and projections about schools driving transmission over real world evidence to the contrary. This notion is against the fundamentals of science.
I recognize Mfume’s narrative carries a superficial plausibility that, for many people, is not easily dispelled. In about a year’s time I’ll be publishing an entire book that, among much larger arguments, will lay out a detailed rebuttal to this specific falsity. But in the meantime we’re left with some soundbites and brief texts.
One other moment in the hearing worth highlighting was witness Donna Mazyck, the Executive Director of the National Association of School Nurses, claiming that she couldn’t remember whether she had a meeting or conversation with the White House or the CDC related to school opening guidance.
The Republicans have long been trying to establish to what extent the teachers unions may have had undue influence on schools guidance. In a hearing a year ago, Rochelle Walensky, the Director of the CDC, was questioned about private meetings with union leaders and subsequent language suggested by them that made it into the agency’s guidance. Walensky testified that the CDC engaged with more than fifty organizations and stakeholders, including the National Association of School Nurses, regarding school guidance. The implication being that unions were but one of many voices with influence.
Yet it’s unclear what the engagements actually entailed with these fifty other groups, relative to that of the unions. Was it just an email sent with draft guidance? Was it a brief meeting? And if so did any of these other fifty voices have direct influence on language in the guidance?
It’s hard to imagine anyone—let alone the director of the National Association of School Nurses during unprecedented school closures—not remembering getting contacted by the CDC or the White House.
The hearing overall was not about the science—or lack thereof—behind school closures. Rather, as its title indicates, it was centered on the consequences of the closures. Needless to say, there have been many harms of great consequence—from academic to socioemotional—for a great many children. But some that are lesser-known are truly heartbreaking. For example, school closures led to disturbing signs of stark increases in child abuse because children in dangerous homes lost the safety net of being seen by teachers, who typically account for around twenty percent of those whole file reports of abuse. I mentioned this and a number of other harmful effects in my comments during the hearing.
For many privileged children the school closures and interrupted learning were something on the order of a mere inconvenience. Yet there are millions of children for whom the closures have led to permanent harms. It’s critically important to understand what went wrong.
A link to a video of the hearing is below. My opening statement is at 12:30.
A more extensive written version of my opening statement is available here.
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