SALT LAKE CITY — Democrats and the Biden administration have failed poor families and students of color as well as those with disabilities in being slow to reopen the nation's schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Utah Rep. Burgess Owens said Thursday.
Inaction worsens the educational disparities in communities, which over time will also contribute to widening opportunity and wealth gaps, he said during an Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee meeting, where he serves as the ranking Republican.
Owens said the best way to help struggling families is to give them more freedom to make choices for their children's education, not by shutting them out of schools and closing doors to greater opportunities.
"Too many poor families, many of them students of color as well as those with disabilities, have been left with no educational option other than to wait on bureaucrats to follow the science and reopen schools," he said. "The Biden administration and this Congress have failed these families."
The committee heard testimony from Jennifer Dale, an Oregon mother whose 9-year-old daughter, Lizzie, has Down syndrome.
"She is a hidden victim of pandemic policies and prolonged school closures," Dale said.
Lizzie has not attended school for seven months and cognitive delays have made online learning impossible, she said. Provided a Chromebook, she threw it away without her parents knowing and asked for "far away school with her friends," as she called in-person learning, her mother told the committee.
Too many poor families, many of them students of color as well as those with disabilities, have been left with no educational option other than to wait on bureaucrats to follow the science and reopen schools.
–Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah
Dale said Lizzie has been denied all physical, occupational and speech therapies provided under her education plan because services are telehealth only. She lost all the friendships she built from kindergarten because there are no classrooms with peers and no sports or extracurricular activities.
"A once vibrant life full of dancing on stages, scoring goals in soccer, and friends who helped her open her lunchbox, gone," Dale said.
Owens is among House Republicans who have called for a bipartisan investigation into the effects school closures are having on children with disabilities.
"While numerous states and schools have listened to the science and implemented proper safety precautions to offer students and families safe, in-person instruction, too many students are trapped in school districts that have refused to reopen, causing irreversible harm to our nation's children," he said.
Owen said the closed classrooms have also increased mental health problems among students. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows mental health visits to the emergency room increased between 24% and 31% for children from March to October of last year, he said.
He also cited a 2020 analysis by McKinsey and Company estimating that children of color may lose up to one year of learning compared to white students losing four to eight months, with an average overall learning loss of nine months.
"These numbers are jaw-dropping," he said.
Owen said it's clear that the longer schools stay closed, the further children will fall behind, particularly those in disadvantaged groups.
"Yet the Biden administration and Democrats continue to prioritize unions over students and politics over science. This is no way to lead our nation through an unprecedented crisis. This is no way to chart a path towards educational equity," he said.
Congress provided plenty of funding to reopen schools, but children are still stuck learning from behind a screen, forcing the youngest and most vulnerable to overcome insurmountable barriers to success.