Preparing for the Costs to Government of Virginia’s Generation COVID

John Littel, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources

by James C. Sherlock

To justify her insistence on keeping schools closed, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in February of 2021, “kids are resilient and kids will recover.”

She brought that same message to Virginia.

In one of the strangest choices in Virginia political history, Terry McAuliffe brought Weingarten to Virginia to campaign with him on the last weekend of his losing gubernatorial campaign.

Thus sealing his defeat.

It turns out, as it was always going to, that you can’t keep kids out of school for up to a year and a quarter, homebound, and expect all of them to “recover.”

I will call here those in K-12 during COVID school shutdowns Generation COVID (Gen C).

I wrote the other day of an estimate by a renowned educational economist that the 1.2 million Gen C kids in Virginia public schools would lose several hundred billion dollars in lifetime earnings because of un-repaired damages to their learning of all types.

His critics here argued into the night about study methodology, but none denied costs at some level would be there. They did not offer their own estimates.

John Littel, Virginia’s Secretary of Health and Human Resources, has the job of preparing his agencies for the lifetime social costs of those children.

Secretary Littel has in his portfolio the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS), the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), the Department of Medical Assistance Services (DMAS) (Medicaid), the Virginia Department of Social Services (DSS) and Office for Children’s Services.

He has to assess the short and long term costs of increasing demands for those services by Gen C.  Many in that 12-year public schools cohort, those 1.2 million Virginians, will be in greater need of support after the shutdowns.

Some immediately.

Consider only the current increased demands for behavioral health services, Medicaid and social services support.

The Monitor on Psychology of the American Psychological Association (APA) in September 2017 published a cover story by Kirsten Weir.

It opened:

They call them “the formative years” for a reason. A wealth of research has shown that stress and hardship in childhood—such as that caused by abuse, neglect, exposure to violence and mental illness in caregivers—can alter the brain architecture of a developing child. Those physiological changes, in turn, raise the risk of cognitive and developmental delays, physical health problems such as diabetes and heart disease, and behavioral and mental health problems such as substance abuse and depression.


To be sure, some resilience factors are drawn from within, involving abilities such as problem solving, self-control, emotion regulation, motivation to succeed and self-efficacy. But external factors are important, too. Some of those influences are related to the attachment system, including having supportive parents or primary caregivers, close relationships with other caring adults and close peer relationships. Still others exist in systems beyond the family, such as effective schools and neighborhoods and the qualities of faith and hope embedded in spiritual and cultural beliefs.

Many of the problems that stem from childhood adversity involve inadequate self-regulation, which has been linked to parents’ behaviors and the home environment. As described in a detailed report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, children who have experienced maltreatment, harsh parenting and challenges such as poverty and food insecurity show poorer self-regulation in cognitive, emotional and behavioral domains. Yet parental warmth, responsiveness and sensitivity foster the development of self-regulation, and can buffer the effects of other stressors.

You can tell it was only 2017.  She dared write of “faith and hope embedded in spiritual and cultural beliefs.”

The APA’s Ms. Weir went on to discuss better parenting as the highest payoff, followed at some distance by better social-emotional schooling targeted at kids whose homes were to some degree dysfunctional, and assistance by clinical and counseling psychologists.

In 2017 she did not anticipate COVID and its unnecessarily prolonged school shutdowns. They were prolonged with gubernatorial prodding and progressive school board policy in response to demands by such perverse actors as Ms. Weingarten.

Nor did Ms Weir anticipate skyrocketing chronic absenteeism associated with the shutdowns.

So, net of her excellent article and recent experience, the costs of the shutdowns are not limited to Gen C’s own lost earnings.

Action is underway. The Youngkin Administration, led by Secretary Littel, has made a good start in dealing with the tragedies left behind by the shutdowns. The new Behavioral Health Plan and its $230 million in new funding in the Governor’s budget is, just that, a start.

The increased costs of services to those less “resilient” in Gen C for medical and behavioral health, for Medicaid and for social services support, like their lost earnings, will persist to some degree for the rest of their lives.

The criminal justice system will also bear additional costs, but that is not for this discussion.

Secretary Littel has the job of putting a price on the increased costs of Gen C to his big slice of Virginia government and shaping and sizing his agencies to make the services they will need be there and work.

I am privileged to know him well enough to know that he is the right person for the job.

Bottom line. In a just world, the costs borne by Gen C and by those who provide them increased services would be reimbursed by the progressives who demanded them.

As is always true, the biggest costs are borne by those who can least afford them, the poor, and governments who provide services to the poor.

Not coincidentally, the most damaged kids included racial minorities. In any other context, the progressives’ extended school shutdowns would be criticized as structural racism.

OK, I’ll say it: the extended shutdowns were racist in their effects.

Progressives, who embrace a government command economy as the future, convened as school boards, made that future much more costly in all possible ways in divisions where they held sway.

But justice will be denied in this case. Indeed their reckless actions will cause to increase what progressives prize most, government spending and control.

They should take a bow, I guess.

But denial is their preferred stance.

The furnace-hot backlash [to an article by Nate Silver in which he urged school re-openings] seemed to be triggered by Silver’s assumption that school closings were not only a mistake — a possibility many progressives have quietly begun to accept — but an error of judgment that was sufficiently consequential and foreseeable that we can’t just shrug it off as a bad dice roll. It was a historic blunder that reveals some deeper flaw in the methods that produced it and which demands corrective action.

By the tail end of spring 2020, it was becoming reasonably clear both that remote education was failing badly and that schools could be reopened safely.

What happened next was truly disturbing: The left by and large rejected this evidence. Progressives were instead carried along by two predominant impulses. One was a zero-COVID policy that refused to weigh the trade-off of any measure that could even plausibly claim to suppress the pandemic. The other was deference to teachers unions, who were organizing to keep schools closed.

Those strands combined into a refusal to acknowledge the scale or importance of losing in-person learning with a moralistic insistence that anybody who disagreed was callous about death or motivated by greed.

The fevered climate of opinion ruled out cost-benefit thinking and instead framed the question as a simple moral binary, with the well-being of public schoolchildren somehow excluded from the calculus.

The ideas that produced the catastrophic school-closing era may have suffered a setback, but its strongest advocates hardly feel chastened. Whether educational achievement can or should be measured at all remains a very live debate within the left.

Most progressives aren’t insisting on refighting the school closing wars. They just want to quietly move on without anybody admitting anybody did anything wrong.

That article was in New York Magazine in January of 2022. It’s motto: “Irregular musings from the center left.” The author was Jonathan Chait, a long-time, well-published public man of the left himself.

Public contrition by progressives would be appreciated, but

  1. It won’t happen, especially here on BR, where we were treated to howls by Virginia progressives when I wrote this week about that estimate of just the costs to future Gen C earnings; and
  2. It will not in any case reduce the bill.