Interview with Lilia Cortina, Ph.D.
Someone who was always on the right side of schools
I had the pleasure to conduct this interview with Dr. Lilia Cortina. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, she was a steadfast defender of the rights of children. She worked tirelessly behind the scenes to improve upon the harms of our COVID-19 policy. She is a hero of mine.
I admit that I feel a lot like her. I am also a liberal, progressive. I was a part of Urgency of Normal, and proud of that. I also feel betrayed by Democratic politics on schools. I feel so betrayed that now I feel alone.
But she says it all better than me. I hope enjoy this interview…
Tell us about yourself?
I’m a professor of psychology, women’s studies, and management at the University of Michigan. I did my PhD in clinical-community psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. My scientific work falls broadly in the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion in organizations. These issues resonate deeply with me as a Cuban American. I am also a life-long Democrat and strong supporter of public education. I attended public schools throughout my childhood, even though I grew up in Louisiana where schools were not great. Today, my husband and I both teach at a public university, and we send our two teenagers to public schools.
One issue you are passionate about is the role of school closure during the COVID19 pandemic: How did you first get interested in this issue? In your mind, what were the greatest failings?
I first became interested in school closure during the summer of 2020, when it became clear my kids’ schools would not open that August.
Public schools in our city were shuttered, offering no form of in-person instruction. Even services like physical and occupational therapy were relegated to zoom. I wrote a long letter to the superintendent and school board, urging them to let students back in buildings sooner rather than later. They ignored me and many other parents, and kept Ann Arbor schools shut tight for over a year.
We witnessed many mistakes during that prolonged period of school closure. I think the greatest failings had to do with disregard for science, safety, and social justice. Let me explain.
As early as summer 2020, scientific and medical authorities were emphasizing the importance of keeping schools open during the pandemic. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a consensus study in July 2020, entitled Reopening K-12 Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Prioritizing Health, Equity, and Communities. The authors concluded that virtual schooling is simply ineffective and inappropriate for many children. They advised schools to prioritize reopening classrooms full time, especially for the youngest learners and those with special needs.
By October 2020, science was showing that schools were not significant drivers of COVID-19. Two international studies, for instance, found no clear relationship between in-person education and COVID spread. The physician leading one of the studies reported that “there is no consistent pattern…It's not that closing schools leads to a decrease in cases, or that opening schools leads to a surge in cases."
Still, throughout fall 2020 schools remained closed in left-leaning towns like mine, in the name of “safety.” Discussions centered around the risk that COVID posed to the physical health of students and staff. There was rarely any mention of psychological health, even though mental health disorders were on the rise. Young people were reeling from record rates of depression, anxiety, disordered eating, and self-harm. Society had shut down many of the institutions that structured their daily lives, sending them into social isolation. This is anything but healthy, especially for children and adolescents. The Surgeon General ultimately proclaimed a youth mental health crisis in the U.S.
School closures brought other risks, too. There were the risks that young children would not learn to read. That special-needs children would not learn at all. That families would fall further into poverty, with parents (mostly moms) having to leave the workforce to supervise virtual school. Some would say these risks were worth taking, because they were “only” educational and economic. But what about the rising risks of child abuse in homes under strain? Risks of lower life expectancies for those who don’t complete high school? Risks of major depression, drug overdose, and suicide? These risks pose a greater safety threat to young people than COVID ever did.
Some emphasized “equity” as the reason to keep schools closed, given the devastating impact COVID had on Black and Brown communities in 2020. But we quickly saw that virtual schooling was a disaster for many children of color. Also for those living in poverty. In low-income families, it is common for all adults to work outside the home, in “essential” jobs that cannot be done from home. So when schools shut down, poor children were often zoom-schooling on their own, without the adult support needed for learning. Others stopped attending school altogether. The achievement gap widened dramatically.
This is not social justice.
Tell me about the public schools in your area. How have they fared?
Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) is the 4th largest school district in Michigan, with approximately 16,700 students (down from around 18,000 in fall 2019). AAPS is a wealthy district, with a $1 billion facilities bond and $46 million tech bond. It has a reputation for excellence, placing near the top of many “best” lists. For example, Niche rates Ann Arbor as #5 in its list of “cities with the best public schools in America.”
AAPS responded to the COVID crisis by closing up shop in March of 2020, and then staying closed until March 2021. During that time, there was no in-person instruction, learning center, literacy support, therapy, or childcare offered through the public school system. To support the virtual year, AAPS poured millions into Chromebooks, iPads, hotspots, headsets, digital libraries, software suites, and learning management systems. Every child received a device, pre-loaded with all manner of educational software. District officials hoped technology would solve the problem of pandemic schooling.
Despite the massive investment in tech, zoom-school was a disaster for many Ann Arbor families. School officials were inundated with letters from the community. During Ann Arbor Board of Education meetings, parent after parent shared stories of pain. Of drowning. Of lost learning as their children sat silently all day staring at screens. Over 1000 families fled the district, moving their children to charters, privates, or open schools in surrounding communities.
Ann Arbor doctors implored the school district to reopen its doors, writing letters to the Board of Education in July 2020, December 2020, and February 2021. These letters emphasized the medical consensus that in-person education could happen safely, so long as mitigation measures are in place. They also warned that ongoing school closure would take a toll on children’s health: “each additional day that passes without kids in school inflicts harm that will persist well beyond the pandemic.”
These physician advocacy efforts fell on deaf ears, with one stunning exception. The Vice President of the school board (Jessica Kelly, who also chairs the Ann Arbor Democratic Party) responded to the February letter by giving an impassioned speech at a board meeting. She painted these physicians as cowards making unreasonable demands on school teachers. Her message was clear: doctors (even pediatricians) have no expertise relevant to children or education. They had best butt out.
To this day, relations remain strained between the Ann Arbor school board and surrounding community.
What lingering effects of school closure do you see now?
My husband Kai Cortina is an educational expert on faculty at the University of Michigan. For three decades, he has specialized in the scientific study of school learning and social development. Kai took a look at what happened to Ann Arbor student achievement over the course of the pandemic, analyzing standardized test scores for grades K-8. What he found was disturbing.
Every year, the Ann Arbor Public Schools administer NWEA tests for reading and mathematics. The fall 2021 tests reflected student achievement during the prior academic year (2020-2021), which was mostly remote. These NWEA scores showed sharp declines in learning, compared to the (in-person) years before COVID. The impact was most pronounced in elementary school, where the average student lost nearly a third of a school year in math (-31%) and almost one fifth of a year in reading (-17%). Scores for 2nd graders were especially alarming: losses of around 60% in math and 40% in reading. These results complement findings by Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, which analyzed NWEA data for upper elementary and middle school kids.
Why this matters: Ann Arbor is an affluent school district that went “all in'' on virtual education. We had the Cadillac of virtual school. No child was without a device or an internet connection, and no teacher was without training on the new technologies. This was the ultimate test of whether in-person classrooms could be replicated remotely. It was a multi-million dollar experiment, and it failed in spectacular fashion. Kai’s analysis is based on only one school district, but lessons learned would apply to any schools that spent many months on zoom. You can read more about his findings in an article he wrote for The Detroit News. Detailed results are available in this report: The Academic Costs of 2020-21 Online Instruction in Ann Arbor Public Schools.
School closures had ripple effects that did other damage as well. Many liberal parents felt (and still feel) a deep sense of disappointment in the Democratic Party for its tepid response to prolonged closures. Dems have historically been great champions of public education, but now we are “the party that closed the schools.” Trust in public health has taken a nose dive. Families watched as bars, restaurants, tattoo parlors, bowling alleys, shopping malls, and private schools opened up to great fanfare. Meanwhile, their children were stuck on screens all day at home, because it was “not safe” to reopen public school buildings.
Post COVID, children will be at a severe deficit. How can we catch kids up?
Findings like my husband’s have important implications for school districts that went virtual most of last year. Without intensive intervention, some children will have learning deficits following them for years. This will translate into lower high school graduation rates, fewer kids going to college, and higher income inequalities down the road. As one of the authors of the Harvard study explains, “local business leaders, parents, and school boards need to engage with their school districts and make sure that the district recovery plans are commensurate with the losses. If not, these achievement losses will become permanent.”
Congress has appropriated $190 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding to help schools with pandemic recovery. If districts spend the bulk of these funds on academic recovery services, that will go a long way in helping children recoup lost learning. However, many school districts are diverting those funds for other purposes.
Again, to use my own district as an example, we continue to see heavy spending on technology solutions in Ann Arbor Public Schools. More than $10 million already went to devices and software, and another $4 million was recently approved for more tech. Some of these are ESSER dollars. We see less investment in academic recovery initiatives. There is no talk of high-dosage tutoring, for example, or extending the school year. Yet according to experts, these are exactly the sorts of aggressive actions needed to catch up the kids that zoom-school failed.
Kids? Do you think we have treated them fairly or unfairly?
Kids have been treated so unfairly it’s hard to know where to begin. Pandemic policies harmed them by not only shuttering their schools, but also taking away the very things that brought them joy. Last year, communities like mine canceled most youth activities – from organized sports to orchestra performances to school plays to proms. This year, restrictions continued in some cities, with arts, entertainment, and dining venues off-limits to unvaccinated children. Until recently, for example, Broadway theaters required all audience members to show proof of vaccination, which effectively barred young children.
This treatment of children as nothing more than vectors of disease is cruel. It is also baffling, given that science shows a large age skew with COVID. As David Leonhardt explains, “for children without a serious medical condition, the danger of severe COVID is so low as to be difficult to quantify.” Families worried that a child will transmit COVID to an older relative should be allowed to make their own decisions about how best to mitigate risk. Anyone worried about catching COVID from an unvaccinated child has the option of wearing a well-fitted, high-quality mask. Adults should bear these burdens, not children.
The Urgency of Normal campaign has been a welcome addition to the landscape, providing data, guidance, strategies, and other tools for bringing a sense of normal back to children’s lives. We have asked kids to make too many sacrifices in the name of COVID safety. This has caused academic, social, psychological, and developmental damage that we are just starting to understand. It’s high time we change course. Let kids get back to being kids.
Anything I missed?
Let me close with a shout-out to Ann Arbor Reasonable Return (a2reasonablereturn.org). A2R2 is a grassroots organization that has been fighting for the wellbeing of children since the start of the pandemic. It’s made up of parents, educators, doctors, nurses, lawyers, scientists, and public health professionals. We advocate for all families to have reliable, in-person school and all that school entails. This includes full extracurriculars, childcare, bussing, and therapies as needed. We also urge our district to take steps to remedy the harms of remote schooling.
Last year A2R2 met with leadership of the local school board and teacher’s union; wrote to school, city, and state officials; dialogued with lawmakers in Lansing; and organized rallies in support of reopening schools. We built a website and a social media presence, raising awareness about what our school district was doing (or hiding, as reported here). We FOIA’d many pages of public documents, and kept families informed about what we found (alerting the community, for example, when the health department determined that our public school metrics for reopening were “unachievable”). A2R2 also held a GoFundMe, raising over $40,000 in two days. This allowed us to retain legal counsel, and start a nonprofit and a PAC. I serve on the nonprofit’s Board of Directors.
On the Ann Arbor Board of Education, four seats will be up for grabs this fall. A2R2 PAC funds will go to candidates committed to science, social justice, and open schools.