The terrible trade-off of keeping schools closed
Honestly acknowledging trade-offs is what makes for serious governing. A key difference between policy activists and policy analysts is that the former either severely minimize the existence of trade-offs or ignore them completely. Lower speed limits would save lives, but they would also waste more of our time and make it more expensive to ship goods around our continent-sized country. Sharply higher taxes might raise more revenue for government, but they could reduce incentives to work, save, and invest. Big budget deficits might juice the economy in the short run, but they could result in higher long-term interest rates. One commonality among "populist" governments is that they ignore economic trade-offs and govern as if such constraints do not exist. Financial crises are frequently the result.
The terrible physical toll of COVID-19 is immense and obvious: Nearly 160,000 American dead so far and an untold number of recovered victims with possible long-term health damage. Other costs are not so immediate. And that is what makes the debate around virtual schooling so difficult.
Keeping kids out of school this year would be a different sort of economic catastrophe, but one every bit as serious as the deep recession from which we are currently recovering. School is not just daycare for younger students so more of us can go to work. Nor is it just a "credentialing" mechanism for older students that allows future employers to find the best workers. One of the strongest and most persistent findings of modern economics is that schooling really does something important to help kids become high-functioning adults, including as workers in an advanced, globalized economy. Those findings are seen to be as true today as when they were first identified in the 1950s. Indeed, a 2018 World Bank analysis shows the benefits increasing since 2000.
It is really not controversial: Missing school is tremendously harmful, harm that can be quantified in reduced future earnings. And it is not a small reduction. A new calculation by economist Michael Strain, my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, finds keeping kids home for another semester after the spring shutdown represents a loss of over $30,000 per decade in future earnings for a typical worker who graduated high school but didn't attend college. And if kids only get online schooling until September 2021, the losses for many would likely be even larger.
We have been here before, unfortunately. While many of us were unaware of the "forgotten pandemic" of the 1918 influenza, probably far fewer know about the 1916 polio epidemic, the first major outbreak of that virus in the United States. It struck in late June of that year and persisted into November, with more than 23,000 cases diagnosed and some 5,000 fatalities. Among the measures taken by local officials to combat the virus were school closings. A 2017 paper by economists Keith Meyers of the University of Arizona and Melissa Thomasson of Miami University found children ages 14 to 17 during the pandemic ended up with "less educational attainment in 1940 compared to their slightly older peers."
But couldn't these kids just catch up later, after a vaccine makes in-person schooling safe again? Theoretically, maybe, with enough funding and intensive tutoring. But consider the difficulties we already have helping disadvantaged kids combat the "summer slide" phenomenon where education attainment regresses over the long summer break versus wealthier kids who have greater education enrichment options. The idea of catching up so many kids after such a long period of suboptimal learning would seem to suggest American has the sort of "state capacity" that it has so far failed to demonstrate in containing the coronavirus. It would be a massive effort.
And, of course, the inadequacy of online distance learning — especially for lower income kids who may have less access to devices and good internet service — is not the only problem. School closures create a huge childcare burden that increases worker absences for those who cannot work at home. Goldman Sachs finds that "single parents, workers that cannot work from home, and parents with young children are more at risk of not working due to child care needs. We estimate that roughly 24 million workers, or 15 percent of the labor force, are in at least two of these three situations."
So here we are, a society facing a terrible choice. But we have to choose. And virtual learning for all probably is not the right choice everywhere, especially if cases are falling and positivity rates are low. But that is not the case everywhere. And where the outbreak is more severe, government officials need to do whatever it takes — including mask mandates with penalties and more federal funding for rapid on-site testing and safety fixes — to contain and track the virus well enough to open schools ASAP. Then again, those things should have been done months ago. America's disgraceful pandemic failure continues.