Reopening Our Schools Is a National Security Issue

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A student follows COVID-19 measures at Yokota Air Base.
A West Side Elementary school student follows proper COVID-19 measures during their first day of school, August 24, 2020, at Yokota Air Base, Japan. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Juan Torres)

Ryan Hooper, a former Army specialist, is currently a high school social studies teacher in Baltimore, Maryland.

In the midst of the Cold War, the famed A Nation at Risk concluded, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."

Faced with fear and uncertainty from abroad, the United States prioritized education as a way to win the Cold War. Now, in our New Cold War, our less serious nation has taken the opposite approach, callously placing education on the back burner while opening bars and movie theaters instead. If an unfriendly foreign power forced the wildly ineffective Zoom education system on our country today, wouldn't we view that as an act of war?

The virtual learning experience in our country has been a disaster, whether you're in poverty-ridden Baltimore, like myself, or the more affluent Montgomery County, Maryland -- and the consequences are never-ending. They include dramatic learning losses, mental health risks, widening academic achievement gaps, and women rapidly dropping out of the workforce, just to name a few. But what about the consequences of school closings for our national security?

In 2013, a report on U.S. Education Reform and National Security created by the Council on Foreign Relations researched the national security implications of our country's dismal educational outcomes. The task force found that, "Large, undereducated swaths of the population damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information, conduct diplomacy, and grow its economy."

The negative educational outcomes that pose national security risks highlighted in this report -- such as low graduation rates, fewer college-ready students, poor civics knowledge and unemployable youth -- are expanding during our failed attempt at virtual learning.

Moreover, the economic consequences resulting in the continued closure of our schools will not only have immediate impact to our country now, but may have devastating consequences for our economy in the future. As economists in a World Bank paper suggest, school closures could reduce future earnings, resulting in a 15% loss in gross domestic product globally. As we have learned before in history, economic security is national security, and our national security of the future depends on our ability to educate a competitive workforce today.

Further, the untold human potential we are currently allowing to decay in virtual classrooms is obstructing the future leadership of our country. At the moment, the future Anthony Fauci is receiving an inadequate education that will fail to prepare him to lead our nation's efforts in the next global pandemic. The future John Lewis right now is receiving an education that looks similar to the education that the actual John Lewis received growing up in the Jim Crow South -- hauntingly unequal.

What is perhaps most alarming when it comes to education during this pandemic is how our country compares to others on the global stage. In Germany, schools with limited social distancing and mask measures have successfully reopened without major outbreaks. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other European countries have prioritized schools to remain open despite a rising surge in coronavirus infections. And how about our adversaries? China has brought close to 200 million of its students back to school, and Russia, which has experienced obstacles during its reopenings, is now finding flexible solutions to continue teaching its youth.

However, in America, only half of our schools remain open for in-person instruction. And while the rest of the world continues to pass us in educational outcomes, our students are left behind, deteriorating at home in front of computer screens as our maladroit adults mishandle a pandemic and argue over frivolous culture wars.

For a country that was once able to build the Pentagon in 16 months, rapidly develop the atomic bomb, and put the first human on the Moon, is it too much to ask for us to be able to reopen schools safely?

If we can't, our national security will decline, and we will lose on the battlefields of the future.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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