Meet the Canadian Psychiatrist MSNBC Is Using To Defend School Shutdowns

Remote learning loss is 'dangerous myth,' Mehdi Hasan says with help from University of British Columbia's Tyler Black

August 31, 2023

MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan is using a Canadian psychiatrist and self-described video game expert to rail against the "dangerous myth" that pandemic-era school shutdowns prompted learning loss in children. Education policy experts in the United States say that argument is laughable.

In an August 24 segment titled, "The shocking truth about kids, Covid, and school closures," Hasan argued that evidence showing school shutdowns hurt academic performance "doesn't actually exist." Central to Hasan's claim is Dr. Tyler Black, a child psychiatrist at the University of British Columbia who touts his expertise in "video games," "media," and "screen time." Armed with data from Black that Hasan said reflect test scores in "many districts"—which include observations from less than two dozen of the country's more than 13,000 school districts—the MSNBC host concluded that "remote schools," in some cases, "actually fared better than the in-person ones."

It's unclear how Hasan, who did not return a request for comment, landed on Black as an expert source for the segment, given that the Canadian psychiatrist's pre-pandemic television appearances saw him discuss "stereotypes around video gaming," not education policy. Experts in the United States blasted Black's "cherry-picked" data, telling the Washington Free Beacon that more robust studies show remote learning did hurt students.

"The overwhelming scientific consensus is that the degree of learning loss students experienced is strongly related to the amount of time they spent away from school," Fordham Institute president Michael Petrilli said. "We see that in studies that examine trends across districts, states, and even countries. No doubt there are outliers, but the general relationship is quite clear." Michael Hartney, fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, was more blunt in his criticism of Black, saying the Canadian should "stay in his lane."

"The longer schools were closed, the more learning suffered," Hartney told the Free Beacon. "That is true, according to the best research that we have, not some sort of back-of-the-arm calculation that this guy did in his spare time."

Black did not return a request for comment.

Hasan's defense of virtual learning comes as Democrats grapple with their support for prolonged school shutdowns, particularly as U.S. reading and math scores plummet to historic lows. Ivy League researchers and media outlets such as the New York Times have linked those losses to remote learning, prompting Hasan to lament that criticism of school closures is not just coming from Republicans.

"The myths about children and COVID … that school closures were a massive and avoidable mistake … have endured for so long, become so ingrained, so pervasive, that they are not just something Fox viewers believe," Hasan said. "I'm sure many of you watching at home have sadly come to accept many of these myths as true."

Hasan went on to cite figures from Black that compared test scores in California and Florida. An increase in test scores in deep-blue Los Angeles and a decrease in scores in GOP-led Florida, Hasan said, proved that remote instruction was not "the main driver of learning loss."

Beyond the data set's minuscule size—Black charted just one school district in California and three in Florida—academic policy experts balked at Black's attempt to compare numbers in different states, arguing that doing so fails to account for local variations in reopening efforts. All three of the Florida school districts used in Black's data set reside in deep blue counties, which were among some of the last to reopen.

"The problem is that, of course, most of the variation in achievement, and most of the variation in school closures, was actually within states, not across states," Ohio State University education policy researcher Vladimir Kogan told the Free Beacon. "If you look at that data within states, you see a very strong relationship between the length of school closures and academic decline. So to say that at the state level there's not a strong relationship [between school closures and learning loss] really is very weak evidence."

Black touted Hasan's segment after its release, calling it "very comprehensively and expertly laid out." Days later, as the segment attracted mainstream criticism online, Black announced he was "taking a twitter break."

Hasan's learning loss segment was not the first time the MSNBC host tapped Black to defend school closures. The Canadian in 2022 appeared on Hasan's show to argue that the mental health impacts of missing school are "likely negligible." Asked to cite "data" to "back up this idea that kids may be more distressed over catching and spreading COVID … than by being stuck at home alone during school closures," Black failed to do so.

"Well, the most important first set of data is actually listening to what kids are saying," Black said. "The data is still out, and a lot of things are being said without there being a lot of data to support it."