WASHINGTON — Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot deserves credit for standing up to the Chicago Teachers Union. But the fact that so many Chicago teachers were willing to abandon their students in the first place is disgraceful. The next time they walk off the job in violation of the law, she shouldn’t negotiate with them — she should fire them.

It is appalling that nearly three-quarters of Chicago Teachers Union members voted to walk out, locking more than 300,000 students out of their schools. As Lightfoot made clear, their actions were not only illegal, they were an attack on the well-being of Chicago children. “They abandoned their posts, and they abandoned kids and their families,” Lightfoot said this weekend.

She is right. They walked out even after they were allowed to cut the vaccination line and Congress appropriated $128 billion in President Joe Biden’s COVID-relief package to reopen schools. That’s nearly $2,500 per student nationwide. But it wasn’t enough. How is it that grocery clerks showed up for work throughout the pandemic — even before vaccines were available — but teachers refused to do the same?

Apparently, grocery clerks believe they are essential workers, while Chicago’s teachers do not.

Early in the pandemic, we shut down schools because children are usually the most vulnerable to a contagion. But we now know that for kids, COVID is no more dangerous than the flu. In Germany, not a single healthy child aged 5 to 17 died of COVID between March 2020 and May 2021. Zero. We don’t know whether any healthy children died in the U.S. — because, incredibly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not track that information. But the fact is kids are safer in the classroom than they are at home — or even on the car ride to school.

By contrast, we know that school closures do irreparable harm to children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently declared a pandemic-induced national state of emergency for children’s mental health. The CDC reports that the number of emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts by girls ages 12 to 17 rose by 51% from early 2019 to 2021. School closures isolate children and rob them of their daily routines and interactions — lunches with friends, clubs, sports, plays and school trips. The damage is especially profound for poor children from broken homes.

For kids with abusive or absent parents, school was their refuge — the one place where they experienced the support of caring and present adults. When schools close, they are abandoned by their teachers as well.

It will take years to assess the full extent of the damage, but New York Times reporter David Leonhardt has begun compiling the data — and a deeply disturbing picture is already forming. Children, he writes, suffered learning losses during the first year of the pandemic from which they have not recovered. A McKinsey study found the pandemic left students five months behind on math and four months behind in reading. Those in schools with majority Black populations were six months behind in math and reading. “We haven’t seen this kind of academic achievement crisis in living memory,” says Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The learning losses, McKinsey noted, could reduce their lifetime earnings by an average of $49,000 to $61,000.

School closures are child abuse. And they’re not just happening in Chicago.

According to data firm Burbio, nearly 5,400 public schools throughout the country stopped in-person instruction during the first week of January.

So, what can be done to stop this from happening again? Simple. Take power away from those who don’t care about children — the teachers unions — and put it in the hands of those who do: Parents. In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey, R, announced a program to give families struggling with school closures up to $7,000 for children’s educational needs. If their school closes for even one day, families who meet the income requirements can use the money to move their kids to a school that is willing to teach in person.

The irony is the architects of this catastrophe claim to be progressive, but the impact of pandemic school closures is regressive. Parents who can afford private or parochial schools are not facing these problems. Their students are in the classroom this year, because affluent parents control their education dollars. If their teachers refuse to teach, they can move to another school. It is only poor and minority children who are held hostage by teachers unions. The time has come to liberate them by putting parents in charge of how their education dollars are spent.

We now know that school closures do far more damage to kids than COVID does.

Teachers who refuse to teach in person do not belong in the teaching profession. The next time they walk out — in violation of the law, their contracts and the interests of their students — fire them.

Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.

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