As the omicron variant is making the COVID crisis and Joe Biden’s plans to combat it seem like Déjà vu all over again, a renowned Harvard professor has come forward to say that school closures did more harm than good for the kids they were supposed to protect.

A return to virtual learning in the midst of the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19 would simply be repeating past mistakes, Joseph G. Allen, an associate professor, and director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“The harms to kids from being out of school, on the other hand, are severe,” Allen wrote. “They are accumulating. And they could last for decades.”

Allen’s first point, which comes with the most direct evidence, is that students’ grades tanked in key areas last year. McKinsey’s research examining COVID-19 effects on the 2020-21 school year found the pandemic left students five months behind on math and four months behind in reading. Schools with largely minority populations fared worse, with students falling six months behind in math and five to six months behind in reading. 

But Allen said learning loss was just the start of the troubles caused by at-home learning. Studies on COVID have consistently shown low hospitalization rates for children, yet their health has been impacted in a number of other ways and could even worsen if administrators revisit remote education, Allen argued.

“We have a full-on child mental health crisis on our hands,” he wrote. “The proportion of pediatric hospital visits for mental health reasons increased significantly in 2020 as the pandemic hit and schools closed, and the trend only worsened as 2020 wore on.”

Those negative effects, he said, can include increased anxiety and a decrease in reports of at-home abuse. In terms of physical health, Allen predicted more students could be severely impacted by the sudden loss of school meals. 

To help avoid school closures this time around, Allen argued for more child vaccinations and vaccine mandates for adults in schools.

Professor Allen’s comments were written the day before President Biden’s national address on steps that may be necessary to curb the omicron variant and appeared in a NY Times guest essay entitled “Do Not Close Schools Again.”