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The Pandemic Did This? New York Times Fails Fact Check


Yesterday, September 1, 2022, The New York Times had a front page story entitled: “The Pandemic Erased Two Decades of Progress in Math and Reading.”

The first paragraph states that “National test results released on Thursday showed in stark terms the pandemic’s devastating effects on American schoolchildren, with the performance of 9-year-olds in math and reading dropping to the levels from two decades ago.”

Further down, the article says: “Then came the pandemic, which shuttered schools across the country almost overnight” and “experts say it will take more than the typical school day to make up gaps created by the pandemic.”

The definition of a pandemic, according to the Bulletin of the World Health Organization (ref: Last JM, editor. A dictionary of epidemiology, 4th edition. New York: Oxford University Press; 2001) is “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people.”

According to the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, “an epidemic occurs when an infectious disease spreads rapidly to many people.”

Thus, a pandemic is a disease that spreads rapidly to many people all over the world.

Based on this pretty much universally accepted definition, a pandemic can do exactly one thing: it can spread disease to many people around the world.

What can a pandemic NOT do?

A pandemic cannot impose mandates or lockdowns.

A pandemic cannot block borders or force people to stop traveling.

A pandemic cannot shutter schools – overnight or otherwise.

A pandemic cannot impact math and reading.

A pandemic cannot cause learning gaps.

What can our response to a pandemic do?

If we decide to shut down schools for months and years on end in response to a pandemic, then it is our response that has caused whatever educational deficits and devastation to children ensue. It is not the pandemic.

In case there’s any doubt that the effects of a pandemic are separate and distinct from society’s response to the pandemic, we can take a look at Sweden, where schools were never shut down, and where there was no learning loss (ref) and much less devastation to schoolchildren than in countries that closed schools (ref) during the Covid pandemic. 

Blaming the pandemic for anything other than disease and/or death is misinformation.

The New York Times headline and article contain clear and uncontestable instances of misinformation.

Here is the information from the article, stated in a factually correct way:

US public health leaders and politicians mandated prolonged school shutdowns in response to the Covid pandemic, and these school shutdowns had devastating effects on schoolchildren, creating learning gaps and erasing decades of progress in math and reading.

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  • Debbie Lerman

    Debbie Lerman, 2023 Brownstone Fellow, has a degree in English from Harvard. She is a retired science writer and a practicing artist in Philadelphia, PA.

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