Jan 6, 2022 - Health

The schools keep closing

Data: Burbio; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Burbio; Chart: Axios Visuals

Nearly two years after the arrival of the pandemic, America's schools are still struggling to provide kids with uninterrupted, high-quality education.

Why it matters: Our children's futures — not just educational but also emotional, social and psychological — are at stake.

By the numbers: Some 4,561 U.S. schools either shifted to virtual or closed temporarily for at least one day this week, according to a school opening tracker maintained by Burbio, which aggregates school, government, library and community event information.

  • That's a big jump from the few hundred schools where learning was disrupted in early December, though it's still a small fraction of the 98,000 schools in the U.S., per Burbio.
  • This week's number includes 653 Chicago schools that canceled classes today after 73% of Chicago Teachers Union members voted to suspend in-person teaching, Axios' Monica Eng reports. (The teachers were protesting COVID safety conditions in schools.)

What's happening: Omicron is triggering the same school closures that Delta and the original COVID-19 virus did.

  • Even with vaccinated teachers, support staff and students — and even with the CDC's new guidance that exposed kids can stay in school if they test negative — school caseloads have been high enough to trigger staff shortages and shut down in-person learning.

All the disruptions continue to hurt students and the economy at large.

  • Elementary school students ended the 2020–2021 academic year about five months behind on reading and math skills, per a McKinsey report. That learning loss will worsen as COVID keeps interrupting school.
  • So many kids are isolated and out of school that it's contributing to an escalating child mental health crisis in the U.S.
  • On top of that, the mounting stress and loss of productivity that working parents are dealing with is hurting the economy. 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.
  • A new Arizona program is offering parents whose kids' schools close up to $7,000 to use for services like child care or online tutoring, the Arizona Daily Star reports.

What to watch: Advocates of keeping schools open say the negative effects on kids' education and mental health outweigh their risks of getting seriously ill from COVID.

  • "I don't hear a lot of strategy out there [from schools]," Joseph Allen of the Harvard School of Public Health told CBS. "And, in the meantime, restaurants are open, bars are open. Adults are doing whatever the heck they want, while our kids suffer."
  • Vaccines for students, teachers and school staff, high quality masks (KN95) in school, and updated air filtration systems in school buildings can all help keep in-person learning going, Allen writes in the New York Times.

Go deeper: The Wall Street Journal dives into how COVID closures are affecting one Pennsylvania district, from the desperate hunt for substitute teachers to teenagers dropping extracurriculars to care for younger siblings.

Go deeper