A House committee held a hearing Wednesday to look into the effects of school closures on children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fla., started out the hearing by saying teachers’ unions “disproportionally affected school closures.”

Bean cited a Brookings Institute study that found “school districts with lengthier collective bargaining agreements were less likely to start the fall 2020 semester with in-person instruction, were less likely to ever open for in-person instruction during the fall semester, and spent more weeks overall in distance learning.”

The panelists at the hearing included Nat Malkus, a senior fellow and the deputy director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Malkus said multiple factors contributed to education losses for children but the most damaging was extended school closures.

Malkus said the decision to reopen schools was a decision policymakers had control over, referencing statistics from Brookings Institution.

“There is a strong relationship — visually and statistically — between districts reopening decisions and the county-level support for Trump in the 2016 election. ...  On average, districts that have announced plans to reopen in person are located in counties in which 55% voted for Trump in 2016, compared to 35% in districts that have announced plans for remote learning only. Unsurprisingly, the one remaining group in EdWeek’s data — “Hybrid/Partial” — falls right in the middle, at 44%,” the Brookings study says.

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Derrell Bradford, president of education advocacy group 50CAN, who also testified at the hearing, said the learning loss among children due to the pandemic is a “generational tragedy.”

Bradford then answered questions from the committee on what states did with their Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, to which he answered, “Sadly, what’s been proven is if you give American school districts $190 billion in a black box with no accountability, they’ll spend it on themselves.”

He said that Klamath County in Oregon used 70% of its funds on things such as new bleachers, returfing a field and building a new gym rather than on additional education for its students. In Newark, New Jersey, its school district only spent 5% of its relief dollars on tutoring, Bradford said.

North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, who was on the panel, shared some positive news, saying her home state used federal funds to the benefit of its students by launching the Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration.

Beginning when it opened in February 2021, Truitt said the office began its research immediately to understand the impact of learning loss on every individual student in the state of North Carolina following the pandemic, making it one of the most comprehensive reports in the nation.

Rep. Burgess Owens, who represents Utah’s 4th Congressional District, began his statement by saying that due to COVID-19, Americans can now better understand what has been happening to Black children for decades at the hands of teachers unions.

Owens, a Republican, referenced a 2017 statistic that 75% of African American boys do not meet state reading standards.

“Unions are focusing on themselves, their institution and not those Black young men that will go out and become very unsuccessful and very hopeless in the future. ... The upside of COVID, if there is one, is that parents across the country will now have empathy to those that have been used, abused and discarded for so many decades,” Owens said.

Owens said to ensure the learning losses experienced during the pandemic never happen again, “we must ensure that our children can never ever be used as ransom. Our children are our future, not our bargaining chips or political hostages,” he said.