COVID policy choices held students hostage 

A new report released today from Center of the American Experiment details how state government policy responses to COVID-19, including shutting down schools, exacerbated the already-declining academic achievement of Minnesota students. State education leaders, under pressure from the teachers’ union, stubbornly stuck by their shutdown decisions even as the data showed children were at much lower risk for contracting the coronavirus and transmitting it to family members.  

This is the second of two reports examining the costs of government policy choices due to the pandemic. The first report detailed how Minnesota’s government policy responses to COVID-19 cost each resident $1,866 in lost GDP by the end of the first quarter of 2021, or $7,464 for a family of four.

“The decision to close schools was a profound mistake that changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Minnesota students,” said Catrin Wigfall, Education Policy Fellow at Center of the American Experiment and author of the report. “It wasn’t the pandemic that held students hostage and caused this severe learning loss — it was the policy choices made by Gov. Walz and his commissioners.”

The report chronicles how Minnesota policymakers had all the data they needed early in the pandemic to see that school children were not at risk of getting or spreading the virus. It also found that districts with little in-person instruction experienced the greatest declines in reading proficiency in both spring 2021 and 2022 compared to spring 2019. From the report:

During the entire pandemic, over the course of three years, only eight school-aged children in Minnesota (ages 5-17) died with or from COVID-19. During the summer of 2020 when the Minnesota Department of Education was designing its complicated metric for schools to return, an infant (nine months old) was the first child COVID-related death in ages 0-17 in the state. While each child’s death is a tragedy, the risk level was well documented, and many parents, school leaders and legislators were calling for a safe return to school that fall.”

“This report is not hindsight. Many of us were warning about potential learning loss and calling for schools to reopen in September 2020,” added Wigfall.

The results of the policy decisions made during the pandemic are staggering. As the 2022-2023 school year begins, fewer than half of Minnesota students are proficient in math (44.6 percent), as measured by the state’s Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs). Just under 50 percent of students can’t read at grade level.

Other key takeaways from the report include:

  • The state’s 2020 graduation rate was 83.8 percent, yet only 45 percent of those graduates were performing at grade level in math the previous year as 11th graders. Based on spring 2022 test results, only 36.3 percent of Minnesota 11th graders are proficient in math.
  • Guiding school districts’ mode of learning during the onset of COVID-19 was an overtly complicated, arbitrary matrix from Gov. Walz and his Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).
  • During the entire pandemic, over the course of three years, only eight school-aged children in Minnesota (ages 5-17) died with or from COVID-19.
  • Politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making. The consequences — from learning loss to readiness gaps to economic impacts — deserve a clear-eyed accounting and should serve as a call to carefully weigh future policy choices.

A copy of the report can be accessed at