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False divisions and dubious equivalencies
Children’s rights during the COVID-19 pandemic

This chapter examines the causes and consequences of the current crisis in children’s rights during the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically how and why children’s fundamental rights to life, health, and safety are besieged in the context of education and schooling. It scrutinizes the laissez-faire pandemic response of minimal mitigations in comparative global perspective, with the United States exemplifying this model and faring worst among peer nations, alongside the United Kingdom and Sweden. Using an intersectional framework regarding systemic inequities, it analyzes policies regarding school reopenings and pandemic mitigations through a review of relevant news media, surveys, statistical data, and public discourse. The master narrative regarding childhood education during the pandemic has created false divisions and dubious equivalencies between different sets of children’s rights to justify in-person schooling with inadequate mitigations. Political officials, economic elites, contrarian “experts,” and aligned technocrats advanced laissez-faire policy fueled by disinformation campaigns, moral panic, and political violence, to overpower scientific consensus, public opinion, and human rights, which disproportionately harms working-class and racial minority children.

Introduction

In January 2022, nearly two years after the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), millions of students, educators, and parents around the world, including in the United States (US) protested that no student should have to risk their health for education (Pinsker 2022) However, many Western governments—led by Sweden, the United Kingdom (UK), and the US—have chosen to ignore calls for public health and safety. As Sweden adopted the least protective approach to community transmission, contrarian physicians in the US and UK advanced the anomalous Swedish example for in-person schooling without mitigations, particularly as soon as pediatric COVID-19 vaccines were in sight. Despite proving false for previously-vaccinated age groups, the most controversial and oft-mistaken contrarians—inexpert in social or behavioral sciences—claimed that ending school masking requirements would incentivize parents to vaccinate younger children, whose vaccine uptake never reached adequate levels despite the implementation of this advice (MSNBC 2022). Public admissions of such mistakes have never led to correcting the policies based on them. Instead, the lack of health and safety in schools resulting from zero-mitigation policies continues to cause great physical and psychosocial harms to children and families.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic—the worst global health crisis in over a century—at least 10.5 million children in the world have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19, tens of thousands of children have died, and millions have suffered disability (Bellandi 2022; UNICEF 2022). The pathway of SARS 2 infection is through the respiratory system, but COVID-19 (or COVID) is a multisystemic, vascular, and neurotropic disease with immunological effects that often renders survivors vulnerable to other infections and morbidities (Smadja et al. 2021; Temgoua et al. 2020; Zhou et al. 2020). Although the vast majority of those infected live past the initial, acute phase of infection, survivors of COVID-19 are at substantial and cumulative risk for Post-Acute Sequelae of COVID-19 (PASC), also known as Long COVID, regardless of age, vaccination, or health status (Iacurci 2022).

Life expectancy has fallen in four out of five OECD nations during the pandemic, and dramatically in the US, reversing decades-long gains (British Medical Journal 2022). Long COVID is a chronic manifestation of COVID-19 after the acute phase of infection with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, or SARS 2), with prolonged effects and substantial global prevalence (Chen et al. 2022). Each COVID infection carries between a one-in-five and a one-in-eight chance of progressing to Long COVID within about a month or more of infection, with recent studies reporting as high as nearly one-in-two prevalence (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2022d; Van Beusekom 2022). Long COVID commonly causes chronic fatigue, neurological damage, psychological disorders, memory impairment, confusion, and numerous other serious and lasting sequelae in healthy people across age groups, such as blood clots, heart attacks, and a three-fold increased risk of death within a year of a non-severe infection (Al-Aly, Bowe, and Xie 2022; Salari et al. 2022; Uusküla et al. 2022; Xu, Xie, and Al-Aly 2022). Long COVID experts admonish against current policies of mass infection, asserting the need to create awareness of this “urgent problem with a mounting human toll” (Ballering et al. 2022; Kikkenborg Berg et al. 2022; Lopez-Leon et al. 2022).

Princeton historian Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor describes the US toll of death and disability as “surreal,” which official estimates undercount (Taylor 2022). More than one million Americans died in fewer than two-and-a-half years, exceeding four thousand deaths per day several times (Taylor 2022). More than 7 percent of the US population (twenty-three million people) suffer from disabling Long COVID, causing more than half a million Americans to become unemployed (Iacurci 2022; British Medical Journal 2022). While comprising only 4 percent of the global population, the US has the highest COVID-19 death toll in the world, has fared worse than peer countries, and has accounted for approximately one-quarter of global COVID infections and one-sixth of deaths (Bennett and Cuevas 2022; World Health Organization 2022b).

COVID-19 is the leading infectious cause of death in US children, and among the top five causes of pediatric death overall, even after vaccination (White House 2022a). US COVID mortality has exceeded four decades of AIDS mortality (Thrasher 2022, 9–10). However, in the third year of the pandemic, 4,100 COVID deaths per week—more than a weekly September 11 mass casualty event—has been treated as unremarkable by US media and politicians (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2022a; British Medical Journal 2022). Public health scientists, physicians, economists, and other experts representing the consensus view of the pandemic warn that “Leaders and policymakers must not accept or normalise our dangerous current status quo,” including through minimization of hazards, which lead to widespread dissemination of false beliefs (British Medical Journal 2022). Yet, leading the way, after Sweden and the UK, the US government has ended effective COVID public health mitigations, despite ongoing and escalating need for public safety measures. Other nations, such as New Zealand and Singapore, loosened otherwise stringent national safety protocols only after achieving significantly lower per-capita death rates and making considerable public health investments to secure their populations during upcoming surges (British Medical Journal 2022).

In the US and UK, poverty, gender, and race are the strongest determinants of disease burden, encompassing public-facing workers in health, service, and retail sectors (Sustainable Development Solutions 2022; Taylor 2022). Those with fewest resources carry the greatest burdens. COVID fatality rates, and therefore COVID health concerns, are consistently far higher among Black, Latinx, and other US racial minority groups (Pew Research 2021b). Counties experiencing the highest death rates are those with average poverty rates of 45 percent (Taylor 2022).

Nations that consistently implement public health measures and/or have better infrastructure for health, safety, and education see more equitable outcomes across various socio-economic metrics. The zero COVID policies of New Zealand, Australia, China, and Pacific Island nations experienced relatively rare mortality and low morbidity overall in proportion to their populations than laissez-faire nations, translating to roughly eight to ten times lower case fatality rates (Our World in Data 2020–2022; World Health Organization 2022a). Nations in which mitigations are normalized, such as the Republic of Korea and Japan, have experienced remarkably lower mortality and morbidity (Our World in Data 2020–2022). Cuba took the approach of closing in-person schools indefinitely and used the widely accessible medium of state television to broadcast national curricula during school days so that schoolchildren could continue engaging educational material from home or settings outside of school (Goodman 2021a). Cuban leadership explained that they based this decision on epidemiological and experiential understanding that viruses transmit most efficiently among children in school settings, and as a result, focused on developing a COVID vaccine for children first.

Depending on the state and timing, US pandemic response has fallen along a continuum ranging from aiming to eradicate or contain the virus (most protective) to laissez-faire (least protective), the latter of which became the dominant national approach (Bai et al. 2022; Gretchen 2020; Long et al. 2022; Normile 2021; Yang et al. 2022). Laissez-faire refers to minimal regulations in the public interest by the state, and prioritization of “free market” activity and individual “choice” (Scott and Marshall 2009, 405). Laissez-faire nations deprioritized children’s vaccination, focusing instead on protecting the elderly, who, in the US, enjoy far greater wealth, political power, and governmental spending and benefits than children (Corsaro 2015, 308–314).

Research on children’s rights during the pandemic inadequately addresses the ways children’s rights to life, health, and safety have been falsely rendered oppositional to education and child development under the guise of championing children, uncritically accepting dominant narratives underwriting laissez-faire policies (e.g., Adami and Dineen 2021). This chapter reviews scientific studies, news articles, surveys, and statistical data involving experts and policymakers, and finds that the dominant narrative of school reopenings manufactured a “debate” that created false divisions and dubious equivalencies between different sets of children’s rights. Despite scientific and international-legal consensus on children’s rights to life, health, and safety as fundamental, the protection of these rights during the pandemic was rendered adversarial to child development, psychosocial well-being, and children’s economic, educational, and social welfare rights. Dominant discourse also ignored socio-economic disparities or leveraged them in ways to promote in-person schooling without mitigations.

How and why this occurred is analyzed from an intersectional perspective, meaning that inequities and injustices resulting from harmful policies are understood as having systemic and historical roots along the lines of race, class, gender, and generational disparities, which are reproduced in and through law, politics, and policy (Crenshaw 1998). An intersectional approach shows that violations of children’s rights to life, health, and safety are occurring through the exploitation and reinforcement of longstanding structural inequities, while creating new ones. Laissez-faire policy regarding childhood education has been driven by politics and power, against scientific consensus and public opinion. Coordinated inauthentic actions, disinformation campaigns, and political violence are considered within the scope of politics and power disfiguring public policy in violation of children’s rights.

The adoption of laissez-faire pandemic policies has occurred through at least three primary means, including (1) minimization or denialism and mythologizing regarding the harms of COVID-19 to children and their network effects; (2) a moral panic of pediatric mental health and academic attrition blamed on mitigation measures; and (3) political prioritization of narrow, short-sighted economic aims that insist upon labor and schooling in unsafe spaces despite the availability of effective mitigations. A policy of no policy during a global public health emergency has created a crisis of children’s rights in which life, health, safety, and education are routinely undermined, with poorer socio-economic outcomes. This requires corrective reframing of pandemic policy to combat disinformation, normalize mitigation of communicable disease, and prioritize children’s rights, needs, and perspectives. This chapter aims to expose violations of human rights through laissez-faire pandemic policy within the larger goals of generating critical awareness of their modus operandi and prevention of further systemic harms.

Children’s rights to life, health, safety, and education

Causes and consequences of the current crisis in children’s rights during the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically rights to life, health, and safety in the context of education and schooling, can best be interpreted through a global and intersectional lens. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the touchstone document for a conception of international children’s rights, which enjoys broad global consensus as the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. The US is the only nation that has not ratified the Convention, yet much of US child welfare law is governed along the same principles, which are compatible with the historical development of children’s rights in the US (Grahn-Farley 2011). CRC is the first legally binding international instrument to provide the full range of human rights to children, including social, economic, civil, political, cultural, and health rights. It institutes children’s legal rights to survival through the provision of essential needs such as food, clean water, and health care, as well as the rights to education and social participation (Uchitel et al. 2019).

The CRC outlines children’s rights to life, health, and safety as well as education. It requires that all states “recognize that every child has the inherent right to life” (Art. 6). The guiding principle of the CRC is that all state actions impacting children must be guided by the best interests of the child (Art. 3). This includes institutions, services, and facilities responsible for the care and protection of children, which are required to “conform to standards established by competent authorities, particularly in the areas of safety [and] health” (Art. 3(3)). States are required to “recognize the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health,” and to fully implement this right, including through taking appropriate measures to diminish infant and child mortality, combat disease, and develop preventive health care (Art. 24). Children’s rights to education are also emphasized and elaborated in the CRC, including for children with disabilities (Arts. 24, 28, 29). The UNCRC should be understood as a minimal standard for children’s rights—the floor, not the ceiling—of aspiration for the fulfilment of children’s well-being and dignity (Gran 2021, 190). Children’s health is directly related to their rights to life, survival, and development (Art. 6).

Children’s rights to education include the right to an environment that is safe and not harmful to one’s health (Art. 24). Lack of sanitation is an infringement on the rights to life, survival, development, and fulfillment of basic educational attainment. The right to education requires providing a basic standard of health to further the social and economic development of the child, and to be able to advance the realization of their other rights (Beiter 2006, 218). Children’s rights to education requires states to facilitate its fulfillment, provide non-discriminatory access to education, and order the closure of schools with reasonable justification, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic (Strohwald 2021, 203).

Laissez-faire pandemic policies violate each of these basic, minimal rights, and reinforce long-standing patterns of adultism and childism—the de-prioritization of children’s rights, needs, and perspectives on matters affecting them in favor of adult-centered interests, and the false assumption that adult decision-makers craft policies and resolve conflicts in the best interests of the child. Laissez-faire policies promote mass infection, which increases morbidity and mortality across all age groups and undermines key objectives of human rights to redress discrimination, marginalization, and vulnerability, while establishing dangerous precedents for responding to public emergencies of international concern. If “children’s rights are the perfect means to determine whether human rights truly are meaningful,” then contemporary policies threatening the life, health, and education of children are cause for alarm among defenders of human rights (Gran 2021, 9).

Violations of health and safety

The harms of COVID-19 must be understood not only in terms of mortality but also morbidity, and on a continuum of duration and severity, from the acute phase of infection to post-acute, long-term effects, and quality of life across the life course. Unmitigated in-person schooling has driven excess deaths and disabilities for children, and their families and communities. Safe education during a pandemic of a novel airborne virus requires a layered approach to mitigations that utilizes vaccination, well-fitted high-filtration masks, and indoor air-quality management (The Urgency of Equity 2022).

COVID is consistently a leading cause of US child mortality (fourth in 2022), and the primary cause of child mortality from infection or respiratory disease (Flaxman et al. 2022). It is the first or second leading cause of death among the age groups of children’s parents, caregivers, and elders (Ortaliza, Amin, and Cox 2022). These ranks fall dramatically during summer school closures, and likely represent conservative lower bounds (Flaxman et al. 2022). The US government acknowledged that children play a major role in facilitating transmission of SARS 2 when approving pediatric vaccines (Chatelain 2021). Child and adolescent mortality are rare in the US, making the COVID mortality burden concerning, particularly given that COVID amplifies severe impacts of other diseases, the transmissibility of new variants will increase, and the intrinsic severity of variants has often increased (Flaxman et al. 2022). Rather than improving, pediatric mortality has increased markedly with each year of the pandemic in the US, UK, and other countries, such that one-fifth of US pediatric deaths occurred during the Omicron wave (Schreiber 2022).

A public service announcement by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in August 2022 showed that 1,500 children have died, which increased to more than 1,800 two months later, and there have been more than 130,000 child hospitalizations from COVID (CDC 2022; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2022b). Laissez-faire nations such as the US, UK, and Sweden have had similar pediatric mortality patterns and the highest excess deaths among peer nations, alongside problems with tracking and undercounting deaths (Gretchen 2020). Yet in political discourse and mainstream media, child deaths have often been compared to higher death rates among adults and elders in order to minimize harm to children. When confronted with this comparison in July 2021, CDC Director Walensky emphatically stated, “Children are not supposed to die” (Mitchell 2021). COVID has also been falsely conflated with influenza, despite COVID being far deadlier, including for children (Hill 2022). The Delta and Omicron waves of the pandemic have killed far more children than flu ever does (Faust 2022). In 2022, ten times as many children died from COVID than influenza (Travis 2022; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2022e).

Pediatric COVID morbidity is also concerning. Despite vaccine development, effectiveness against infection wanes from about 53 percent to about 17 percent within three months of the initial dose, with merely 15 percent effectiveness for preventing Long COVID at the time of ending mitigations (Al-Aly, Bowe, and Xie 2022; Patalon et al. 2022; Reardon 2022). Public warnings were issued at the beginning of the 2020–2021 school year that children can contract and transmit SARS 2 and develop severe disease and long-term sequelae in at least 10 to 35 percent of cases (87 percent for inpatients), and that unsafe schools drive transmission rates, as the country experienced a five-fold increase in pediatric infections between April 2020-September 2020 due to school reopenings (CBS Boston 2020; Goodman 2020; Raveendran, Jayadevan, and Sashidharan 2021; Shet 2020). The reopening of unsafe in-person schools caused such a disproportionate increase in pediatric infections that children and youth became the drivers of the surge in infections (Pitman 2021). Children comprise 17 percent of the US population and represented 2 percent of infections in July 2020, which increased to 24 percent the following year, a more than ten-fold increase (Goodman 2021b). This became a persistent pattern (American Academy of Pediatrics 2022). It was also becoming clear that thousands of children were losing their parents and primary caregivers (Goodman 2020). The Omicron surge of 2022 was accelerated in schools, proved much more severe and deadly for children than previous waves, and was associated with a three-fold increase in hospitalizations for Upper Airway Infection (Lorthe et al. 2022).

However, the mythologization of children’s COVID immunity stymied medical care and research regarding children (Depeau-Wilson 2022). Contrary to common beliefs that children’s immune systems are “better” than adults’, children have underdeveloped immune systems that render them more vulnerable to infections, and COVID is shown to damage children’s immune systems (Dowell et al. 2022; Lee et al. 2022).

Modalities of violation

The current crisis of children’s rights to life, health, safety, and education results from specific political-economic projects during the pandemic with ideological components and enforcement mechanisms, both legal and illegal. The campaigns to “Reopen America” and “return to normal” have involved business interests and government officials (Nichols 2022, 9–36). The Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) is a petition from a group of contrarian scientists opposing “lockdowns” and promoting a scientifically erroneous notion of “herd immunity” through mass infection of “the young,” while claiming that protective measures against COVID-19 damage physical and mental health (New York Times 2020). GBD comprises three academics affiliated with elite universities, the right-wing libertarian research firm American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), and Dr. Scott Atlas, President Trump’s dubious science adviser, one of the document’s lead authors (Grothaus 2020). Originally an aspirational document, GBD has garnered sufficient support among political and economic elites to serve as an operational ideological blueprint underwriting national pandemic responses, including Reopen America (and Freedom Day in Britain), with its statement to prioritize unmitigated resumption of economic activity (Great Barrington Declaration 2020; Retsinas 2020).

The political-academic formation of Urgency of Normal—comprising a group of anti-vaccination and/or anti-masking physicians—perhaps best exemplifies the mobilization and enlistment of contrarian expertise against scientific consensus and US public opinion regarding school reopenings and public health mitigations in service of GBD and Reopen America (Retsinas 2020). Technocrats in economics, media, and government are also instrumental in advancing these campaigns, while disinformation, astroturfing, and political violence simultaneously serve as enforcement and reinforcement mechanisms to facilitate non-consensual and inequitable policies.

Political economy of pandemic policymaking

Political and economic interests in the US have exploited the pandemic to advance agendas that undermine science and public health, particularly in education, leveraging disinformation, astroturfing, and policy misdirection to serve private interests at the expense of children and marginalized communities.

As predicted by its lead theorist, Naomi Klein, the pandemic presented an ideal opportunity for disaster capitalism in line with the shock doctrine, a theory of political economy regarding the exploitation of disasters to redistribute wealth upward (Klein 2007). Disaster opportunists promote privatization—the private management of publicly funded goods and services—and the notion of personal preference as solutions to public emergencies. Media scholars explain that manufacturing consent for unpopular proposals that serve private interests, particularly in the digital age, is often achieved through disinformation and astroturfing (Arce-Garcia et al. 2022; Chan 2022; Ozdemir and Springer 2022; Sabrina Heike and Philipp 2022). Disinformation is the intentional provision of false information, which is often recirculated by those unintentionally misinformed by it (Ozdemir and Springer 2022). Political astroturfing involves inauthentic and often ephemeral organizational formations that mimic authentic grassroots movements for nefarious purposes. Right-wing libertarian think tanks and legal foundations in particular deploy contrarianism to promote ideologies that are unethical and incoherent, but committed to advancing corporate interests and privatization, i.e., securing social, economic, and political control at the expense of public interest and common welfare (Boston 2021).

In laissez-faire nations, politics and economic interests typically trump science and public health (Owermohle 2020). In March 2020, President Trump decided against school closures and other public health measures based on the views of his personal network, particularly business friends (Nichols 2022). The administration denied or minimized pediatric harms and racial disparities of disease burden, and, through laissez-faire policy and coercing children into unsafe schools, subjected the population to COVID eugenics, in which children were specifically targeted for “herd immunity” experimentation (Diamond 2020b, 2020a; McEvoy 2020; Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis 2022a, 2022b). Government officials and contrarian experts disseminated the myth that children do not transmit, contract, or suffer from SARS 2, specifically for the purposes of reopening schools and to expedite mass infection, while they simultaneously professed contradictory beliefs that mass infection through in-school transmission would lead to herd immunity in the general population. While op-eds promoted the reopening of unsafe schools in the mainstream press, it came to light that the White House was specifically embracing GBD.

Witnessing this, the WHO denounced mass infection of children as unethical (World Health Organization 2020). However, in the US medical experts were selected and platformed in media based on political compatibility with the aims of Reopen America rather than the quality of their expertise. Government officials were aware that less mitigations would cause more infections, but some pressured others to deny or minimize pediatric harms, to suppress information regarding disproportionate impacts on communities of color, and to admonish against the promotion of mask-wearing by school children (Diamond 2020b, 2020a). Making political considerations paramount, Trump’s scientific adviser instructed the CDC to withhold negative information, and to emphasize the public health threats of school closures instead (Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis 2020; Diamond 2020a). Government officials went so far as to commit unlawful acts of obstruction of justice and concealment or destruction of evidence of these actions (Diamond 2020b).

Based on existing science and pandemic conditions, GBD’s notion of herd immunity, in which nearly all of the population was susceptible to the disease, lacked credibility from the outset. It has since been proven wrong, as individual- and population-level immunities from emergent SARS 2 variants continue to be elusive, whether from infection, current vaccines, or a combination (Aschwanden 2021; Kadkhoda 2021). Nonetheless, GBD successfully implemented its policy by disseminating disinformation, particularly the stubborn myth that COVID-19 has little or no impact on children (Gorski 2020; Vogel 2021). A feedback loop between GBD, aligned contrarians, government, media, and technocrats established a harmful paradigm eviscerating public health, to pursue a highly unethical, eugenicist policy (Healy 2021; Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis 2022a).

In 2020, presidential candidate Biden promised to take “steps necessary to get the virus under control, deliver immediate relief to working families, and reopen our schools and businesses safely,” including the adoption of an emergency package to help schools protect against COVID-19, and the implementation of national mask mandates (JoeBiden.org 2020). One year into his presidency, Biden failed to acknowledge significantly increased deaths and disablements with the reopening of schools, and merely repeated iterations of “We are in a better place” in the pandemic, without empirical support (Woolfolk 2022). Biden rationalized governmental policies regarding schools as pro-capitalist, emphasizing “We’re not going back to lockdowns. We’re not going back to closing schools. Schools should stay open … Look, I’m a capitalist … I’m not a socialist” (White House 2022b). Teachers, unions, and socialists criticized coercion into unsafe schools as motivated by maintaining business profitability, which requires schools to serve as holding pens for children so that adults continue working in similarly unsafe workplaces.

Beyond shaping harmful policies, GBD, aligned contrarian experts, and various opportunists promote extremism and radicalization via shared funding streams from right-wing libertarian foundations, astroturf organizations, and direct and indirect alliances with COVID denialists and skeptics (“hoaxers”), anti-lockdown/anti-mask movements, and anti-vaccination conspiracy groups (Ahmed and Bales 2021; Mogelson 2022). Aided by lack of rigor and uncritical exposure in media, during the earliest weeks of shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders, these groups and individuals promoted economic primacy through cost-benefit analyses based on scientifically unfounded claims that alleged losses to national economies due to disease mitigation would be more harmful than the disease, that children and in-school transmission are not concerning risks, and that the population will soon reach herd immunity (University College London 2020; Ahmed 2020). Opportunistic, credentialed contrarians or those with concordant a priori political commitments provide the pseudoscience supporting these efforts. Although they tend to deny or downplay ties to extremists in order to maintain an appearance of neutrality and no conflicts of interest, they form part of the assemblage of far-right conspiracists and anti-science disinformation campaigns through participation in unifying conferences, shaping public discourse, legitimizing extremism, and mainstreaming fringe positions.

Historically, invoking “parental rights” as a binary opposition to children’s human rights has succeeded to deny such protections for US children, achieving their sole exclusion from the CRC (Grahn-Farley 2003; Gran 2021). An outgrowth of the “school choice” privatization movement (rooted in backlash against racial integration of schools), astroturf “parents’ groups” funded by dark money, were instrumental in enforcing unmitigated in-person schooling by protesting COVID testing, masking, and virtual learning at public meetings, using the slogan “my child, my choice” to assert the primacy of parental authority and personal preference over public health (Bowen et al. 2022; Bragman and Kotch 2022; Hemminger 2022; Ozdemir and Springer 2022; Save Our Schools 2021; Waitzman 2021). For example, Moms for Liberty emerged in 2021 to oppose COVID-19 school mandates, then broadened its influence to strongly oppose race and gender identity education. Endorsed by Trump and Florida Governor DeSantis, the group has orchestrated harassment campaigns across the nation, targeting educators, parents, and school boards, and causing individuals to fear for their safety and lives (Gilbert 2023).

In these ways, the pandemic has exposed a globalized political economy that exploits public health crises to advance privatization and economic interests, with a modus operandi of leveraging disinformation and policy manipulation to prioritize elite political and economic interests over children’s rights and the well-being and safety of young and marginalized populations.

Moral panic

To advance these interests, a powerful coalition of actors and institutions generated a moral panic surrounding “learning loss” and children’s mental health to push for the reopening of unsafe schools. Against scientific evidence and the expressed needs of marginalized communities, such policy decisions cause irreparable harm and perpetuate existing inequities.

A moral panic is “the process of arousing social concern over an issue—usually the work of moral entrepreneurs and the mass media,” often involving social problems, contagious disease, and the young (Scott and Marshall 2009, 489). The media platformed and uncritically repeated talking points from Urgency of Normal academics, who claimed that an educational and psychiatric crisis was transpiring; they blamed this first on virtual learning, and then shifted blame onto masking once in-person schooling resumed. Moral entrepreneurs stirred fears regarding child maldevelopment to falsely claim that mask-wearing causes psychiatric disorders and speech delays (Howard 2023).

Grim predictions regarding catastrophic psychological outcomes caused by lack of in-person attendance did not materialize. To the contrary, research showed that pediatric suicides spike during school attendance (Pierre 2021). Recent research shows a small increase in mental health problems but not a measurable increase in psychiatric disorders, self-harm, or suicide rates at the population level, but demonstrates a concerning emergence of neurocognitive sequelae of COVID-19 (Penninx et al. 2022; Torales et al. 2020; Xiang et al. 2020). COVID-19 causes psychiatric disorders in a significant number of survivors and can lead to substantial cognitive deficits, including drops in IQ on par with lead poisoning (Halpert 2022; Hampshire et al. 2021; Henderson 2022). Narratives and claims supporting the mental health alarmism of reopening schools and ending masking ignored risks of neurocognitive damage and child traumatization from caregiver loss to COVID-19, as well as recent psychiatric history. For over a decade before the pandemic, US adolescent mental health outcomes, including suicide rates, were increasingly worsening; these trends leveled off during pandemic school closures, as they do during school breaks, suggesting that school environments contribute to poor mental health (Keyes et al. 2019; Qin et al. 2021).

Self-proclaimed champions of educational equity with no previous interest in the matter suddenly appeared during this crucial moment in pandemic policymaking to promote in-person schooling. None had intervened even in recent pandemic-related issues, such as when Trump’s Department of Education under Betsy DeVos—a prominent leader of the educational privatization movement—issued a directive that would effectively divert pandemic resources from school districts serving low-income students to very affluent private schools (Stratford 2020, in Regilme 2023, 565).

Nonetheless, the moral panic entrenched the idea that in-school mitigations, especially masking, are to blame for psychosocial and developmental harms to students. Research has confirmed that masks are not harmful to child development, and there is significant evidence that consistent indoor masking is effective at reducing SARS 2 transmission among adults and children, particularly when mandated (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2022c; Ladhani, Andrews, and Ramsay 2023). Universal mask mandates also prevent disruptions to school and care programs by preventing in-school transmission. Data pertaining to adolescents similarly indicates no evidence that universal masking causes psychiatric harm; in fact, mask wearing is associated with lower levels of psychological distress, and adolescents were vocal proponents of such mitigations, as expressed in youth protests for safe schools (Pinsker 2022; Yaqing et al. 2021).

Anchoring bias ensures that the first statements regarding a new event remain the strongest; for example, that children are immune to or at low risk of COVID is a cognitive bias that persists despite contrary evidence. Because disinformation spreads fast, and science takes time, an aim of disinformation is to require re-litigating what is already established scientific consensus, not out of genuine good faith, informed scientific query, or argumentation, but rather to advance contrary political or ideological commitments. When policymakers adopt a contrarian position, by the time scientific consensus is re-established, policies have had an opportunity to do irreparable harm. Since long before the pandemic, scientific consensus has been that unvaccinated children, regardless of the presentation of symptoms, are the primary transmitters of virus to their households, since children make better viral reservoirs compared to adults (Bhatt et al. 2022). However, contrarian academics such as neoliberal economist Emily Oster, funded by right-wing libertarian figures and organizations, successfully campaigned to reopen unsafe schools by denying its risks (Cartus and Feldman 2022). Re-establishing the longstanding knowledge about schools as hubs of transmission specific to SARS 2 would only be able to materialize after implementing harmful policies of reopening unsafe schools (Johnson 2022). It is now shown that over 70 percent of household transmission began with children, corresponding with unmitigated in-person schooling (Van Beusekom 2023).

Once schools reopened, the moral crusaders who had argued for reopening schools for the sake of equity were nowhere to be found in struggles for equity, safety, welfare, and quality education in reopened schools, such as infrastructure improvement and more robust programs, and not even for resources to make up for alleged learning loss (Taylor 2022). They also claimed to champion educational equity and to be advocates for socio-economically disadvantaged students. However, once in-person school resumed, they merely set their sights on eliminating safety measures such as testing, quarantine measures, and masking.

A feature of narrative dominance is the ability to triumph as the final word despite going against the voices the speaker claims to represent, due to power imbalances. Long after the reopening of unsafe schools and ending universal masking, the dominant media narrative continues to reinforce claims that virtual instruction caused learning disruption, which is the worst problem Black and Latinx children have faced during the pandemic (Leonhardt 2022). This is despite existential threats to life, safety, and health, whereby Black and Latinx children continue to be twice as likely to be hospitalized and five times more likely to die compared to white children, and comprise 65 percent of American children orphaned by COVID-19 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2022f). Official and elite pandemic discourse actively ignore how inequities in schools—not safety measures demanded by students, families, and educators—fueled further inequities during the pandemic (Harris, Kolodner, and Morton 2020).

Contrary to the master narrative, polls and surveys of parents of public-school children showed satisfaction with virtual instruction, mitigations, and/or how their schools were handling the pandemic (Khaled 2022; McClain et al. 2021; Pew Research 2021a). In a national parent survey, only one-third to one-quarter of parents believed their children attained too little preparation for the next school year, and a majority of lower-income families wanted schools to remain closed for the entire 2020–2021 school year due to greater risk of poor health outcomes among lower-income racial minorities (Hedt 2020). The vast majority surveyed (74 percent) wanted both options, virtual and in-person schooling, to be available (Hedt 2020). With adequate support measures, outcomes of both options are comparable, and virtual learning can even excel in accommodating diverse learning styles (Johnson et al. 2023). The policy implications were that virtual instruction should be widely available with more live instruction and feedback from teachers, and high-quality technology and STEM instruction for the following school year, which the federal and state governments largely failed to provide (Hedt 2020). Failure to support virtual learning led to predictably poor educational outcomes, particularly for socio-economically disadvantaged students (Taylor 2022).

Thus, serving the interests of political and economic elites, a potent alliance constructed a moral panic to advocate for the hasty reopening of schools, disregarding scientific consensus and the critical needs of socio-economically and politically disadvantaged populations, thereby inflicting lasting damage and exacerbating existing social inequalities.

Terror

Political violence aligned with the values and aims of groups that form an anti-mitigation assemblage greatly advanced the implementation, enforcement, and reinforcement of laissez-faire policies through the “anti-lockdown” movement (Mogelson 2022, 9–36). Just one month into the pandemic, “Operation Gridlock” surrounded the Michigan state capital with angry, armed anti-maskers warning of “revolt” against the extension of public health orders during dangerous levels of COVID transmission and deaths (Mogelson 2022, 9–36). The predominantly white, rural protesters resented having to protect those concentrated in urban Detroit, with its large percentage of racial minority residents. After two weeks of Governor Whitmer upholding public health orders, a much larger group of men with loaded guns rushed the state capitol building and squared against police, a prelude to the January 6 attempted coup at the national capitol. A group of participants planned to kidnap and murder the governor for COVID-19 public health orders (Mogelson 2022, 9–36).

Similar acts of intimidation were coordinated across the US against government officials or at capital buildings to force the shutdown of government activities and the resignation of civil servants on public health and school boards through threats of violence and death. At least 1,500 incidents of harassment and violence against public health workers occurred between March 2020 and January 2021 in efforts to delegitimize experts and create distrust as a result of coordinated inauthentic behaviors and disinformation (Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis 2022b, 122). Concurrently, US- and UK-based anti-mitigation organizations emerged, using “freedom” in their branding and human rights language as a cover for their extremism and incitement of stochastic terrorism through conspiracist claims that “lockdowns” kill more people than COVID, and that health-care workers should be hanged for committing genocide by vaccinating people (Amman and Meloy 2021; Institute for Strategic Dialogue 2021). Additionally, right-wing media pundits routinely encouraged non-compliance with masking requirements and vaccination. The confluence and coordination of these strategies successfully catalyzed radical policy change through shocks, microaggressions, and systematic erosion.

As the devastating Omicron wave caused the greatest spike in child COVID infections and deaths, a memorandum from the Biden administration’s polling firm was circulated in February 2022, stating that for the administration to win swing voters, they should simply declare victory over COVID and end mitigations to support the appearance of this victory (Kapur 2022). Biden had previously declared victory over the pandemic on Independence Day of July 2021, while warning of the Delta variant and urging Americans to vaccinate; no pediatric vaccine was available (Jacobs and Cai 2021). Nonetheless, a coordinated set of announcements ensued from several Democratic state governors, using the language of personal choice regarding masking and various iterations of “we must learn to live with COVID,” by which they meant ending public health and safety mitigations, including in schools. Despite running on a campaign platform of “following the science” to mitigate the pandemic, Biden’s administration adopted and accelerated an unmitigated Reopen America political project, with no intention of reinstating mitigations regardless of high levels of transmission.

Through a confluence of political violence, disinformation campaigns, and extremist organizations, anti-mitigation forces successfully eroded public trust and influenced policy changes, culminating in the Biden administration’s decision to prioritize political gains over science by declaring “victory” over COVID-19 and abandoning safety measures, even in the face of surging child infections and deaths.

Conclusion

Children have been the shock absorbers of the COVID-19 pandemic. Forcing families to choose between biosecurity and education is one of the great injustices of our time, violating children’s fundamental human rights to life, health, safety, and education. Similar to other laissez-faire nations that promised the safe reopening of schools, workplaces, and public spaces, the US continues to fare worse among peer nations for individual- and population-level outcomes of COVID-19. A range of means for creating a master narrative about COVID-19 as a negligible risk to children—denialism, minimization, mythologies, extremism, and violence—are used to rationalize, justify, and implement policies that violate fundamental human rights that are necessary conditions for educational attainment. The political-economic projects of Reopen America and return-to-normalcy, aided by aligned technocrats, fueled by moral panic and disinformation campaigns, and catalyzed by organized violence, operate as powerful forces against public opinion, scientific consensus, people of color, children and youth, educators, and grassroots advocacy groups for health equity supported by community-based organizations with deep roots in the communities they serve. As Regilme (2023) argues, “the quintessential logic that underpins the pandemic politics of dehumanisation [is] the marriage of the state and corporate interests for consolidation of the transnational ruling class.” Due to the near-universal respect for human rights and children, demonstrated by widespread support for the CRC, the symbolic power of children is often exploited to advance regressive political agendas that ultimately harm children’s best interests. The pandemic response and children’s rights are politically embattled as part of a broader attack on public interest, collectivism, and social solidarity, as these are antithetical to privatization and authoritarian projects.

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Children’s rights in crisis

Multidisciplinary, transnational, and comparative perspectives

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