Why Is Anne Holton Claiming the Length of Virginia’s School Closures Didn’t Matter? (Part 2)

Anne Holton

(Editors’ note” Part 1 of this series ran yesterday on Bacon’s Rebellion.)

by Vernon Taylor (a pseudonym)

Let’s take a look at Anne Holton’s claims about Virginia’s prolonged school closures and learning loss, which were made at a Dec. 12, 2023, meeting of the Virginia Board of Education, of which she is a member.


1. Virginia Data Are Sparse

Holton did not specify to which data she was referring. But Emily Oster of Brown University and other researchers looked at pre- and post-COVID test data from 12 states, including Virginia. The peer-reviewed study found that learning loss was generally “larger in school districts with less in-person instruction,” with Virginia’s test data showing the greatest correlation between school closures and learning loss. In addition, similar to the statement by Sturdefin about chronic absenteeism, the study notes its results are consistent with pre-COVID research on learning loss from summer break and unplanned closures.

2. The PISA Data Did Not Show a Significant Causal Effect

As explained above, Rotherham pointed out the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results still showed a modest causal effect. For instance, students from countries with closures of less than 3 months performed better on average in math than those from countries with closures longer than 3 months (Box II.2.1).

But by only focusing on PISA, Holton is in a “stop-the-steal”-like ideological bunker, attempting to avoid cognitive dissonance. In addition to the Emily Oster study noted above:

  • International data analyzed as part of a working paper from the World Bank found “a clear link between school closure duration and learning loss.” 
  • UNESCO’s report found the length of school closures was directly proportional to the amount of learning loss in certain countries.
  • A consortium including the Harvard University Center for Education Policy Research found a correlation between remote instruction and widening equity gaps from learning loss. 
  • The 74 found a strong link to length of school closures to 4th grade math scores for urban school districts based on NAEP scores. 
  • A peer-reviewed study in the International Journal of Education reviewed reading scores for Swedish primary students and found no learning loss, including for students from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

3. VA School Board and Education Leaders Were Doing the Best They Could

Holton clearly holds Virginia’s elected school boards and public school leaders in very low regard. VA was 44th of 50 states for in-person school in the 20-21 school year. 44th! VA kept its public schools closed for an extraordinarily long time despite widespread evidence that private schools in VA and public schools in Europe and elsewhere in the US reopened safely in Fall 2020; despite the then-emerging and now-accepted fact that opening schools did not further COVID spread; despite then-emerging data from Europe that teachers were not at greater risk of death; despite now-known data that teaching in person was as safe as commuting by automobile; and despite VA prioritizing teachers for the vaccine in January 2021.

Here are a few more examples of what Holton considers “doing the best they could”:

  • Then-Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Hutchins (who had called learning pods “privileged”) enrolled one of his children in in-person Catholic school in October 2020 while ACPS stayed closed until March 2021;
  • While Fairfax County Public Schools were closed through March 2021, the US Department of Education found FCPS failed to provide its students with disabilities with a free appropriate education pursuant to federal law (FAPE). (Delegate Marcus Simon of Fairfax County claimed in June 2021 that FCPS parents who criticized FCPS’ prolonged school closures were allied with the KKK. Note, there was and is no proof of this.);
  • Then-VA Secretary of Education Atif Qarni in March 2021 denounced much of the parental criticism of VA’s prolonged school closures as merely Republican “gaslighting” and “misinformation.”  

4. VA Schools Were Not Closed Long

A large number of VA students didn’t see the inside of a classroom from March 2020 until March 2021. Holton, the daughter of a governor and wife of a US senator, does not consider that “long.” One has to assume she has lived a life of extreme privilege if one cannot imagine that a year is long, especially for Virginia families who could not afford private schools or childcare, and instead saw mothers leave their careers, young children sit unattended at home alone and underprivileged students fall further behind, expanding the achievement gap as they did not have parents available to tutor them, etc. 

5. Most Virginia Schools Were Open by March 2021

When many VA school districts did finally reopen by March 2021, they were only offering students 2-3 days per week of in-person learning. Burbio noted only 70% of VA public schools were in-person 5 days per week as of May 11, 2021. For instance:

  • The Northam administration refused to require VA schools to open for more in-person days in Spring 2021;
  • In April 2021 (after finally reopening in March 2021), Arlington Public Schools refused to offer all but a few K-12 students more than two days a week in person (unlike many neighboring districts) because Superintendent (and then-VA Board of Education member) Francisco Durán claimed it would be a “monumental logistical challenge.”;
  • Richmond Public Schools did not open until April 2021, offering in-person school to a measly 800 of its 20,000+ students. (In March 2021, the Richmond School Board had even voted to oppose state legislation requiring schools to open in the Fall 2021.)

6. The Language Is Not Necessary, It Casts Blame

The language Holton wanted deleted points to causation, not blame. Casting blame would have been language pointing out that:

  • It was not “the pandemic” that closed VA schools for such an extraordinarily long period of time – it was many of Holton’s Democratic school board member political allies and their overwhelmingly left-leaning public school administrations; 
  • Holton’s political allies in the Northam administration are who chose not to force VA schools to reopen for full weeks of school during the entire 2020-21 school year, and instead prioritize the unscientific beliefs of their political allies, the Virginia Education Association, over VA parents and children; and
  • The VA PTA stayed silent while VA schools were closed in the 2020-21 school year (except for a press release in June 2020), demonstrating they don’t represent VA parents, just like the national organization. 

As for necessity, The New York Times said recently that U.S. school closures may be the “most damaging disruption” to children’s education in US history. There’s no legitimate reason why the VA Board of Education’s annual report would fail to mention a significant cause of a crisis of such magnitude, especially involving the actions of government entities within their department’s purview. For the children who suffered so much from these lengthy closures (some of whom will never fully recover), the language is 100% necessary.