Transcript: Shamik Dasgupta
My interview with the Berkeley philosophy professor
Advocates against pandemic school closures have been ringing the alarm for some time. They were all but ignored two years ago. But the tide is now starting to turn, with mainstream media outlets reporting on the impacts of these closures on children.
My guest today has been speaking out about these policies since 2020. And he recently published a powerful paper arguing that extended school closures were, in fact, a moral catastrophe — and one that we must ensure never happens again.
Shamik Dasgupta is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.
This edited transcript is for paid subscribers. You can listen to the full interview for free here.
TH: Shamik, welcome to Lean Out.
SD: Thanks very much for having me. It’s great to be here.
TH: It’s so nice to have you on today. Set this up for us. Give us a snapshot: How widespread, and extended, were school closures in the United States — and in your hometown of Berkeley?
SD: It’s a great question. There’s a lot of variation around the country, in terms of how extended the school closures were. In my hometown of Berkeley, the school closures began in March 2020 — the 13th of March to be specific. And for middle and high schools, they didn’t reopen until the end of August 2021. So we are talking almost 1.5 years of school closures there. And one thing to keep in mind, as well, is that it wasn’t just that the schools were shut for that period of time. It was also that the remote instruction that was being offered during that time was only about 50 percent of the regular instructional hours. I think that’s quite a key component that often gets missed in conversations about school closures. So, even if remote learning was as effective as in-person learning — which I think we now know it’s not — the closures also just included this dramatic reduction of instructional hours.
Now, that was the situation in my hometown of Berkeley. Very similar situations occurred throughout districts all across the West Coast states of California, Oregon, and Washington. And then also in other Democrat-controlled states on the East Coast, including New York. Illinois had very long school closures as well. So it was pretty widespread in those kind of states. Obviously, as we all know, not every state, not every region of the country kept their schools closed for that long. So there was a lot of variation. But the extended school closures that I’m talking about — they were very widespread in the states just mentioned. In California alone, upwards of 2 million children were affected by closures of that kind. So they’re very significant indeed.
TH: I had mentioned to you over email that I live in Toronto, in Ontario. Our province had the most weeks out of class of anywhere in Canada. 28 weeks in total, with four mass closures. What do we know about how other countries in the world handled these school closures?
SD: Again, lots of variation. I think it’s pretty well publicized that Sweden took a very unique strategy of not closing its elementary schools at all. Not even in the very early stages of the pandemic. Other Northern European countries were similar. Denmark, I believe, closed elementary schools for three weeks, then reopened them and didn’t shut them again at all. A place like the UK was a little different. It implemented more school closures than the other Northern European countries. But even there, their closures were just directed at controlling surges. So they had started reopening by May 2020. Then they had another closure, I think in January and February of 2021, during that winter surge. But they were using the school closures as a targeted implement, just when there was surges occurring. They were open all the time in between.
I should also add the while they were closed in the UK, there was none of this reduction in instructional hours. You can hear that I have a British accent. So, I have some connection to this with my nephews, who were at school for most of the 2021 school year. And who were receiving a full school day by Zoom during those two months that they had a targeted closure during the winter.
That’s the situation in Europe. In the rest of the world, unfortunately, extended school closures were even longer than the ones we experienced in California. They occurred in places like India, which unfortunately had very long closures. I think almost two years, a lot of their schools were closed. That affected a quarter of a billion school children — many of whom didn’t even have any access to the Internet. So, I mean, that’s a whole other kettle of fish, and is a tragedy on another scale.
TH: It’s quite remarkable. I want to get into your main argument from the paper in a moment, which is very striking. But before we get to that, tell me a little bit about your positionality here. Why is this something that you felt compelled to tackle — and why are you speaking specifically to progressives here?
SD: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I identify as a progressive. I identify as a left wing progressive — that’s the political group that I’ve identified with for my entire life. I was raised in a socialist family in the UK. And when these extended closures started to unfold, I suppose I had two important reactions. One is that they struck me as being very obviously a complete policy disaster. Like one of the biggest policy disasters that I can remember, in the last couple of decades at least. Which we can talk more about that later on — you know, why they’re so disastrous. But it struck me as pretty clear that my political group, the political group that I identified with, was implementing just a really terrible policy.
But the second reason was I also noticed that there was very low tolerance for any dissenting opinion amongst the left on this issue. I suppose that that may not be surprising. Often within any political group, there’s a certain degree of intolerance for dissent. But I think it was especially pronounced during the pandemic. It’s easy to forget, I think, how politically-charged things were in the run-up to the 2020 election. Remember, there had just been the impeachment proceedings in the House right before the pandemic hit. And so we were in this political climate where I think many people on the left were just very concerned about a second Trump term. I was concerned, too, about that. I think a lot of leftists considered it even an existential threat — the idea of a second Trump term.
So, in that kind of climate, I think the idea of having open discussion about whether we were making a mistake — especially because Republican-controlled areas were doing things very differently and opening up their schools so much quicker — the idea of even entertaining the possibility that we were making a big mistake was just not tolerated at all.
That combination of enacting a terrible policy and having very little tolerance for dissenting views just struck me as a very worrying situation. In a situation like that, I feel like people within that political group have a certain responsibility to speak up and to say, “Look, I think we’ve gone astray here.” Maybe more responsibility than people in a different political group. So that’s what moved me to start speaking out.
TH: This paper argues that the school closures were a moral catastrophe. How do you define that?
SD: The way I define it is that it’s wrong; it’s a moral mistake. It’s an action that produces moral harms in people. So, it’s morally wrong. But more than that, it’s serious enough that we really have an obligation to learn from the mistake and ensure that it never happens again. So, it’s not a moral crime of a minor kind. In this case, we really do need to reflect on the mistake and make sure it never happens again — just because of the magnitude of the bad effects that it has had.
TH: This paper explores a thought experiment, a premise. Explain what that is.
SD: The core idea behind the arguments is that the school closures that we had, the extended ones, were an untested intervention. So, you know, there are many interventions available to us when trying to deal with a pandemic. And in this case, an extended closure was completely untested. There had been no experimental or observational evidence, or data, to show us that they’d be effective in controlling the pandemic. Nor was there any direct evidence or data about the harmful effects they might have. It was completely untested. Moreover, there was a lot of indirect evidence that we could extrapolate from prior closures, from prior influenza outbreaks and so on. A lot of evidence like that we could use to predict that they would have very bad effects on children and would have very little effect on the pandemic.
So, the situation was untested intervention. We have tons of reasons to think it’s not going to be doing much good and it’s going to do a lot of harm. And yet we forced it upon children without their consent. And the idea behind the paper was that we would never in our right mind support an intervention like that — you know, with such a high-risk, low-reward profile — without testing it first.
To really bring that idea out — that we would really never do this in any other context — I use this thought experiment that you mentioned.
Which goes as follows: As you probably know, by April 2020 Pfizer and Moderna had both developed their vaccines and they were starting clinical trials. Clinical trials are important because it’s a way of testing what this intervention is going to do. You want to test that it’s going to be safe for people. And you want to test that it’s going to actually have a positive effect on the pandemic. So, the thought experiment says: Let’s imagine a third company comes along in April 2020 and says, “Look, we have a vaccine too.” But we imagine in this thought experiment that their vaccine isn’t really a vaccine. It’s just a chemical that almost certainly has no effect on COVID-19 at all. And secondly is known to produce harmful effects in children. It’s known to cause learning problems. It’s known to cause mental health problems in children. So they have this chemical with these properties — we know it’s going to harm the children. And we know it’s going to do very little to control the pandemic.
Now, suppose this company says, “Look, we don’t want to do clinical trials, unlike Moderna and Pfizer. We just want to go ahead and forcibly inject every school-aged child in this country with this untested chemical.” I think we can all agree that that would be absolutely heinous — and that we would never dream of supporting a policy like that.
The argument in the paper is that extended closures were no different from that. It was an untested intervention that we had plenty of reason to think would be ineffective at controlling the pandemic, and very harmful for children. And we went ahead and implemented it anyway without children’s consent.
TH: Let’s unpack that. As you say, extended school closures are an unprecedented intervention. You point out in the paper that prior to 2020, no large-scale studies were done on them. What, if anything, do we know about the effectiveness of school closures in reducing negative health outcomes at a population level?
SD: That’s a great question. That’s really at the crux of the argument, the idea that they were actually very ineffective. But to see why they’re ineffective, it’s actually very important to get clear on what kind of data, or evidence, is relevant to assessing the efficacy of a school closure. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, around April, May 2020 — when a lot of regions around the world, specifically in Northern Europe, were opening up their schools — there was a lot of data and a lot of reporting about the question as to whether transmission is occurring within school settings. Of course, some transmission was seen in a school setting. That’s not surprising.
Which made a lot of people conclude: You send kids to school, there will be transmission. Therefore, if we close the schools, we’ll reduce the amount of COVID transmission. It’s really important to see that that’s just fallacious reasoning. Because even if there is COVID-19 transmission within a school setting — even if it’s rampant — it may be that even more transmission occurs when you close schools.
This is just the obvious point: By closing schools, you don’t eliminate all the children. The children are still there. And, after a while, once the closure goes on for long enough … You know, you might be able to keep them at home for a couple of weeks. But after that, they are going to start finding other ways to socialize. They are going to start forming learning pods. And, as I think we all experienced during the pandemic, you try and set up a pod but the pod is pretty leaky. And if every family has a few leaks, you end up with not much of a pod at all.
The possibility that everyone, I think, overlooked at that beginning stage when they were just looking at transmission within schools, is that it’s perfectly possible that by keeping kids out of school, there is just as much transmission going on. It’s just occurring outside the school setting. It’s even possible that there’s more transmission being driven by kids. If, for example, they are socializing with different groups of people every day. One thing, especially in elementary school settings, is that you have got the same group of kids coming together every day. If the alternative to that is you have a situation where different kids are socializing with different kids on different days, it could even be that closing the school had a negative effect on the pandemic. That it caused more transmission than you would have seen if you’d just sent them to school.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that the kind of evidence we need is not just to look inside schools, and to see what’s going on in a school setting. We need to look, as you said, actually, at a population level. We need to compare regions that kept their schools open with regions that kept their schools closed for a very long period of time. And compare their COVID-19 outcomes. You can look at death rates, hospitalization rates, transmission rates — whatever kind of outcome you’re interested in. You compare them across those districts, and try and control for all the confounding factors that could obviously play a role, like demographics and so on.
There’s been a number of studies that have done that and they found no measurable effect of extended school closures on the pandemic. So that’s to say that when you compare the average school district that kept schools closed for a year, or a year and a half, and you compare that with the average school district that opened up their schools, say, in summer of 2020 — there is no measurable difference between their COVID-19 outcomes.
TH: We’re beginning to get reporting now on the harms to children. But what do we know, at this stage, about what extended school closures do to children?
SD: Yeah. It’s undeniable now that kids have suffered an enormous amount due to these extended closures. Every week, it seems, there’s a new report coming out, measuring just the extent to which they have suffered. I think numerous studies actually have found that those students who missed anywhere between half to the whole of the 2021 school year ended up losing somewhere between half to a year of math and reading learning. So that’s another way of saying online learning was really not doing very much at all. It’s almost as if they just weren’t in school at all. There’s also a report that came out earlier this summer that those losses are dramatically more pronounced in high-poverty schools.
So it’s not just that kids were suffering — all the kids who experienced this suffered — but it’s that the suffering was disproportionately focused on, or experienced by, high- poverty children. I believe that this week, actually, a report came out claiming that two decades worth of progress in math and reading have just been wiped out. Two decades worth of progress have been wiped out. So that’s an indication of the extent to which these extended closures have had a very negative impact on educational outcomes.
It’s worth emphasizing to your listeners that of course it’s not just education that we care about. I mean, we care about education because we think a good education is going to lead to better life outcomes down the road. And there’s a ton of research that was done pre-pandemic on questions like: Suppose a child misses out on a year of education? What effect does that have on their lifetime earnings, for example? There was a recent review — a literature review that surveyed over a thousand studies on that question. They find that, on average, losing a year of education results in a nine percent decrease in one’s lifetime earnings. I know some listeners might find a focus on financial metrics to be slightly crass, but just remember that financial metrics map on to other metrics that you might care more about. So, you know, things like health outcomes correlate with earnings, for better or worse. I wish that were not the case, but unfortunately it is the case. And so, a nine percent decrease in lifetime earnings really is going to have a very pronounced effect on the lives of these children.
TH: I want to spend a moment on how this was allowed to happen. The criticism that I hear a lot from parents — in private, and in people who email me — is that basically what we did is we sacrificed the children’s needs to cater to adult fears. And particularly to the fears of the teachers. Is that fair? Does that argument have merit?
SD: I think there is something to that idea, absolutely. Certainly that’s an idea that’s been floated around. And, yeah, I think there’s a fair bit of truth to it. If the question is, though: What were the political structures responsible for allowing that kind of idea to rule the day? Then I think we need to dig a little bit deeper. Because I don’t think it was inevitable. Even if there was that idea floating around, even if there was high levels of fear. And even if people did have this inclination to sacrifice the wellbeing of children to placate parental fears — how did that idea get translated into actual policy?
That, I think, is a much more difficult question to answer. But I think it’s actually the more, to my mind, important question. I’m not interested in blaming and shaming people. It was a difficult time. I’m more interested in trying to make sure it never happens again. And so I’m quite interested in figuring out: What were the political structures that allowed this fear to translate itself into harming children? I have to say, this is the most speculative part of the paper. I think there will be a lot of research over the coming years to try and really figure out what the causal mechanisms were that led to this kind of policy. But I did speculate about what the reasons were around where I live around in Berkeley, California, just based on my experience trying to advocate for opening the schools.
One thing that I haven’t said is that I spent most of the 2021 school year advocating in Berkeley.
TH: You’re a parent yourself, right?
SD: I’m a parent myself. I have two children in the public school system here. So I was spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get to the bottom of what was stopping these schools from opening. Based on those experiences, my speculation is that there were three main factors that led to this: decentralization, teacher unionization, and political tribalism. I’ll say a little bit about what I mean by those, if I may.
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