The damage we cause when we close down schools — it’s worse than you think

The coronavirus pandemic is worsening again, and so there’s again a debate over shutting down the American economy. A COVID-19 adviser to Joe Biden says a US lockdown of four to six weeks is needed to control this latest outbreak. But such a thing happening seems unlikely given what’s being called for is a lockdown even more stringent than the one in the spring. Moreover, this idea would seem to assume a level of economic support far beyond what Washington is currently considering for a stimulus package.

But whatever happens next, we need to move heaven and earth in a creative and audacious way to keep schools open and get more kids back into classrooms for in-person learning. Two new pieces of analysis highlight what’s at stake. In “Learning inequality during the COVID-19 pandemic,” researchers Per Engzell, Arun Frey, and Mark Verhagen look at the education impact of closing Dutch schools. If remote learning were going to go smoothly and be effective, the authors suggest the Netherlands should have been the place. They note the country leads the world in broadband penetration, the government moved swiftly to make sure kids had the tech they needed, and school closures were relatively brief versus other advanced economies. From a separate analysis of their findings: “Our results are dire … students made little or no progress while learning from home. Worryingly, losses are particularly concentrated among students from less-educated homes – here, the learning loss is up to 55% larger than among their more advantaged peers.”

Via Twenty20

The results are no more encouraging from “The long-term effects of school closures” by Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln, Dirk Krueger, Alexander Ludwig, and Irina Popova. Here is their bracing conclusion in full:

School and childcare closures have significant negative long-term consequences on the human capital and welfare of the affected children, especially those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. This reduction in human capital accumulation is likely slowing the long-run growth prospects of countries, especially those whose economies are relatively human capital intensive, such as the US and Europe.

Thus, school and childcare closures are potentially very costly measures to avoid the spread of the Covid-19 virus. This point was initially largely lost in the political debate, likely because these negative effects arise only in the long run and thus are not immediately measurable. Medical research now also indicates that children are not the primary drivers of the COVID-19 pandemic, in contrast to pandemics caused by the influenza virus. During the current second wave of the crisis in the autumn of 2020, governments seem more committed to keeping schools and childcare centres open as long as possible. For example, Germany and France are closing restaurants, bars, and the entertainment industry during their ‘lockdown light’ in November 2020, but not schools or childcare centres. Our research suggests that this policy choice has the potential to pay significant long-run dividends for future generations, even though it might contribute to a more rapidly evolving second wave of Covid-19 infections in the short run.

None of this should be surprising, at least to parents. Nor to economists. The value of education and additional years of school is well studied. Last July, my AEI colleague Michael Strain calculated that losing the spring and fall semesters would lead to a significant reduction in future earnings for today’s students: “My back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that represents a loss of over $30,000 per decade in earnings for a typical worker who graduated high school but didn’t attend college. The longer schools are closed, the larger the hit future earnings will take.”

And we may be talking about losing another spring semester for many students, or at least disrupting it, if a shutdown should take place at the start of 2021. This shutdown talk is also a distraction from what should be a massive effort to get kids into school, which is where a lot of policymaking focus and attention should be. In addition to its terrible human and financial toll, this pandemic is offering a harsh economic lesson in trade-offs, opportunity costs, unintended consequences, and short-term thinking.

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