Nov 18, 2020 - Politics & Policy

America mortgages its future on school closures

Illustration of an apple with a pause symbol carved into it.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The decision by many U.S. states and cities to keep kids out of school because of COVID-19 will have crippling economic and health effects that could last for decades.

Why it matters: Evidence shows that children, especially younger kids, present a low risk for COVID-19 transmission and that remote education is no replacement for in-person schooling. By keeping schools closed — even as more risky activities are allowed to continue — the U.S. is kneecapping the next generation.

Driving the news: New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza told principals Wednesday afternoon that public schools will close for in-person education on Thursday, as the city has passed the 3% positivity threshold for COVID-19 established by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

  • This means that teachers and parents in the country's largest school system — and one of the few major cities that had even partially reopened for in-person education — have 15 hours to figure out what they'll do tomorrow.

My thought bubble: This is — how to put it diplomatically — a maddening decision carried out in a typically maddening fashion, albeit one that is fully in keeping with the backward way the U.S. has approached schools and COVID-19.

  • To close schools when much riskier activities like indoor dining remain open, even at reduced capacity, is "exactly the opposite of what [leaders] should be doing," as professor of pediatrics Aaron Carroll wrote in the New York Times.
  • While COVID-19 transmission can occur in schools, increasing evidence suggests that the risk in schools is much lower than in the community as a whole, especially if children and teachers wear masks and are able to keep at least 6 feet apart.
  • That's especially true for children under 10, who are also the age group that appears to suffer the most in remote learning.

Of note: Even as they've experienced major coronavirus surges this fall and have instituted lockdowns of varying severity, European countries like Ireland, France and Germany have all committed to keeping schools open.

  • Keeping schools open "is necessary because we cannot and will not allow our children and young people's futures to be another victim of his disease," Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin said last month.

The big picture: America, on the other hand, seems less concerned with its own young people's future — and by extension, our own.

  • Economists at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School projected on the high end that K-12 students have already lost $2.8 trillion in future wage earnings just because of school closures between the spring and September.
  • They stand to lose another $2 trillion if schools don't open until January, which at this point seems sunnily optimistic.

The bottom line: The U.S. is going to be paying for its misaligned priorities and leadership failures on this issue for decades to come.

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