Aug 26, 2020 - Economy

The cost of closed schools

Illustration of a dollar sign on a chalkboard being erased

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

When schools close down, the whole economy suffers.

Why it matters: Beyond the stress of overwhelmed parents or the cabin fever of restless kids, closing schools for COVID-19 could cost about $700 billion in lost revenue and productivity, according to a Barron's analysis — a whopping 3.5% of GDP.

How it works: Schools exist to educate children — but they also serve a vitally important child care function, looking after kids so that their parents can go to work.

  • Parents are losing work hours — or even quitting their jobs — as schools and day-care centers remain closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That hinders economic growth.

By the numbers: Working parents make up around a third of the U.S. workforce.

  • 13% of them lost their jobs or cut back hours due to child care challenges during the pandemic, according to a June survey conducted by Northeastern University. And even if parents can work and care for their kids at the same time, it's impossible to be as productive.
  • On average, a working parent loses around eight hours a week — or a full workday — due to pandemic-era childcare responsibilities, per research by Alicia Modestino, an economist at Northeastern University.

That goes up to 10 hours per week when considering lower-income Americans or people of color. Both groups are disproportionately represented in essential, in-person jobs and can't make up for lost time with early mornings or late nights.

What they're saying: "This is a big drag on the economy," Modestino tells Axios. "Working parents are in every state, in every industry, and in every occupation. The macro implications are really, really big."

  • "Even if you’re lucky enough to have a teleworking situation, it’s really hard to work at full capacity when you’re essentially acting as a teaching assistant," adds Misty Heggeness, a visiting scholar at the Minneapolis Fed.

The bottom line: Schools are a key part of the engine driving the American economy. When they close, everybody suffers.

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