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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.

Go deeper

Daily school attendance falls amid the coronavirus pandemic

1st grade students of Rose Hill Elementary in Commerce City, Colorado, in January. Photo: Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Daily school attendance in some districts across the U.S. has dropped by an average of 2.3% this academic year compared to 2019, according to data from PowerSchool, a company that helps track grades and attendance, reviewed by the Wall Street Journal.

Why it matters: The attendance drop contributes to fears that the pandemic may worsen pre-pandemic academic achievement goals and the long-term well-being of the U.S. economy.

A new pandemic economy toolbox

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Biden administration, tasked with helping the American economy recover, is having to reinvent the economic toolbox to be able to address a crisis unlike anything the world has seen in a century.

Reality check: Whole sectors of the economy, especially in live events and the service industry, are intentionally paralyzed to avoid more catastrophic spread of the virus. Meanwhile, many white-collar telecommuters are doing better than ever. So economic policy needs to be targeted at the neediest.

45 million Americans under winter storm watches near New England

Computer model projection showing the winds moving around the powerful East Coast storm on Saturday Jan. 29, 2022. Image: https://earth.nullschool.net

Nearly 45 million Americans are under winter weather alerts and warnings from North Carolina to northeastern Maine, as a major winter storm threatens the region.

Why it matters: It is predicted to be the biggest blizzard since 2018 to strike the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow possible in parts of eastern Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service.