Feb 7, 2021 - Economy & Business

The high cost of missed school

Illustration of a child's milk carton with a straw. On the side of the carton is a MISSING ad for Benjamin Franklin.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The pandemic's disruption of in-person school is causing headaches for students, parents and teachers. But it'll also trigger long-term economic consequences to the tune of trillions of dollars.

The big picture: The U.S. economy could take a $14 trillion to $28 trillion blow in the long run due to coronavirus-induced learning loss, according to economists' projections. And the longer the pandemic keeps kids out of classrooms, the higher that number will climb.

  • "Nobody’s paying attention to this absolutely stunningly large economic cost that just keeps piling up," says Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist and one of the architects of an OECD analysis of the economic impact of COVID-19 learning loss.

On average, American students from kindergarten to fifth grade have missed out on 20% of the reading and 33% of the math skills they would have learned in normal times, according to a McKinsey report that analyzed diagnostic test scores across the country.

  • And the learning loss isn't equal, says Jimmy Sarakatsannis, one of the authors of McKinsey's report. When looking just at students of color, those numbers go up to 23% and 41% for reading and math, respectively.
  • That's because students of color are more likely to be in resource-strapped school districts with poor remote learning infrastructure. They're also far more likely to lack steady access to devices or the internet.
  • The number of high school dropouts is also projected to spike as a result of the pandemic, he notes.

Why it matters: "The main thing that drives both individual earnings and the economy is the skills of the people. So you can crank through from lower test scores to lower individual earnings to lower economic growth in the future," Hanushek says

  • "We're going to have a less skilled population than we would have had if we had no pandemic."

This mounting economic cost puts even more pressure on the Biden administration to reopen schools, as the root of the learning loss is inadequate virtual instruction.

  • "If disruptions continue through the rest of the year in the ways that they look like they are by the end of this year, on average, students could lose about nine months of learning," Sarakatsannis tells Axios.

But, but, but: "Something can be done about this," says Sarakatsannis.

  • Providing schools with the resources and teachers with the trainings to improve the quality of online school could chip away at learning loss, he says.
  • And extending school days or adding summer sessions or boot camps have proven to be effective strategies at catching kids up.
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