It’s been a busy summer for Deborah DeJesus.
The owner of two tutoring centers said there had been a surge in customers because many parents feared their children would still struggle to catch up in school due to pandemic-related setbacks.
“A lot of kids have fallen behind for sure,” said DeJesus, owner of Sylvan Learning in Williamsburg and Newport News. “Especially with young children learning to read, virtual learning was just more difficult for them.”
Few would argue that remote learning hurts student performance. Still, many schools across the country switched to online classes during the height of the pandemic for safety reasons for students and teachers.
Virginia Republicans who have spoken out against school closings appear to be on a victory lap amid the release Thursday of below-average standardized test scores in Virginia, but critics say they are missing the point.
“None of us believed that restricting in-person instruction during the pandemic would benefit student achievement,” James J. Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, said in a statement Friday. “It was not and is not a political issue. It was always about saving lives.
Virginia public schools closed in March 2020 amid fears about the virus and its rapid spread.
Those fears weren’t unfounded: More than a million Americans have died of COVID-19. Many more are struggling with the long-term effects of the disease. Children, for example, are up to 2.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes after a coronavirus infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Any discussion of test scores or other student outcomes must be tempered by the grim reality of our need for safety during a global pandemic and the trade-off for human life,” Fedderman said.
But Gov. Glenn Youngkin and his appointees did not mention the reason for the school closings during this week’s discussion of learning standards scores, which were released Thursday. Students continue to score lower on SOL tests than in the years before the pandemic.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, recently appointed by Youngkin, said on a conference call that the results show the importance of in-person learning, a point no one disagrees with.
“Students whose schools have been closed for in-person instruction have suffered the most,” she said. “Be in person for school business.”
In a statement Thursday, Youngkin took aim at school closures and said he was elected to restore “high expectations and excellence” in education. The governor has been a vocal critic of school closures and other pandemic precautions, such as masking requirements for students.
“The SOL results released today demonstrate that prolonged school closures have undeniably exacerbated the learning loss experienced by students in Virginia,” Youngkin said.
Virginia House Speaker Todd Gilbert, a Republican who represents the 15th District, also weighed in.
“The closure of our schools and the remote learning that followed will be remembered as one of the biggest mistakes in the history of the Commonwealth education system,” he said in a statement on Thursday. “Republicans are committed to remedying this unacceptable situation by ensuring that our schools have the highest standards.”
Fedderman said it was disappointing that the challenges facing schools during the pandemic were politicized, but it was a trend for Youngkin.
“Since this governor has been in office, he has only pitted parents against educators,” he said.
Youngkin often focused on issues related to education. On his first day in office, he signed an executive order to ban mask mandates in schools. He also gained national attention earlier this year when he launched an email tip line for parents or others to report to educators the teaching of so-called “divisive concepts,” such as critical race theory.
Most recently, Youngkin made an appearance at the Virginia Board of Education meeting — an unusual move for a governor — as he prepared to weigh the delay in the review process for new history standards.
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Jatia Wrighten, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, said it was clear the governor was using education issues to rally his base.
“I don’t think it’s common for a state governor to put so much emphasis on education — not the way he talked about education,” she said.
Wrighten, a former K-12 teacher, said she found it particularly surprising because Youngkin had no experience in education.
The professor said politicians might want to think twice before politicizing issues concerning students and schools. Teaching is already a demanding profession, and exerting political pressure on schools does not help.
“Why do we have a teacher shortage in Virginia? I don’t know — maybe because we have a hotline to report teachers,” Wrighten said.
“The politicization of education has made it very difficult to attract good teachers and keep the effective teachers who are currently there.”
Katie King, [email protected]