In early June, America was united, briefly, on the need to reopen schools. Other countries had managed to do so successfully, and evidence suggested that children were at low risk from severe Covid-19 complications. But that was before President Donald Trump tweeted his support for reopening. Soon thereafter, states that previously dodged the coronavirus experienced major outbreaks. Suddenly, the conversation, divided along party lines, went from how to reopen to whether it was even an option.
There is no reason to cancel school, however. Health experts suggest delaying school reopenings in hard-hit areas until the virus is under control—with luck, by early fall. They encourage states with low infection rates to open on time. So far there is no correlation between school openings and infection levels. Despite high infection rates, Florida plans to reopen public schools in the next few weeks, while New York City, which now has among the lowest rates in the country, will apparently proceed with its plan for children to attend school perhaps only one day a week—though much uncertainty remains. Chicago schools, meantime, won’t open until November, at least.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has stressed that reopening is critical for children’s emotional and educational development. There is also an overwhelming economic case to be made in favor of reopening. In fact, the cost of not reopening schools will last a generation. The benefits of universal education are so deep and well-documented that it’s unthinkable to consider discounting it for another semester. Education is the most effective means of economic mobility and is critical for long-term success. It explains much of America’s income growth and development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, moreover, schools provide important child-care services. As Goldman Sachs found, if schools don’t open, an estimated 15 percent of America’s labor force can’t return to work.
The negative effects of closed schools will be profound and generational. Economists reviewed the loss of earnings from school disruptions during World War II in Austria and Germany. They found that missing a year of school means 9.4 percent to 16.2 percent lower earnings for up to 40 years, with bigger losses for children with less-educated parents. More recent estimates from 139 countries indicate a year of schooling increases earnings by 9 percent. Even brief school closures, such as the 1916 polio pandemic, lowered levels of educational attainment.
The costs won’t be suffered uniformly. Online schooling is better than no school, but it’s hardly an improvement for many students. As in wartime Germany and Austria, better-educated parents can make up the difference by helping their children with online education and adding more homeschooling. Some parents will hire tutors, create learning pods, move to communities that offer in-person education, or find private schools that reopen. Children from low-income households, however, will pay the biggest cost. Indeed, the impact on low-income families will last for years, creating a level of inequality so large that even Bernie Sanders-style levels of taxation won’t fix it. And yet progressives, who normally obsess over inequality, respond by asking affluent parents to forgo educating their children, in an act of class solidarity.
Prolonged school closures will also strain communities and undermine cities. Public schools, which remain the foundation of a healthy economy and society, bring children of different socioeconomic backgrounds together. Time away from these schools is associated with more crime and drug use. The longer the pandemic continues, the harder it will be to open schools, especially as students become unaccustomed to classroom discipline. It could take years to reacclimate children to school attendance. In recent decades, decent schools and safety were reasons why many upper- and middle-class families stayed in cities. Their presence served as a significant part of the modern urban renaissance. In their absence, cities revert to retaining the very rich, the very poor, and a handful of childless twentysomethings—in other words, communities with limited interaction.
If cities like New York fail to offer decent in-person schooling options for the next year, many middle- and upper-middle-class families will go elsewhere—and once they enroll their children in suburban schools, it’s unlikely they’ll return. Considering what’s at stake, it’s inexcusable that cities like New York wasted time instead of deploying every possible resource to open schools in a meaningful way. It could prove the biggest policy failure of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration—one that will take years for the city to overcome.
It’s true that, while Covid-19 may not pose a risk to children, some evidence suggests that they can spread it—especially to vulnerable teachers and staff. Yet this risk can be mitigated without shutting schools down. Risk mitigation is crucial; otherwise, schools could contribute to outbreaks that lead to longer closures. As European and Asian countries show, opening carefully is possible (and too important to get wrong).
The biggest risk would come from school closures lasting longer than a year. It may take two years, or longer before America is completely safe from Covid-19. Each crisis, though, tends to ratchet up standards for safety. Keep-the-schools-closed advocates claim that we can’t open until it’s safe. What “safe” means varies. Some teachers demand better hygiene, testing, and smaller classes. Others say that schools can’t open until we have an effective vaccine. But a typical flu season kills more children than Covid-19 has so far. By current standards of safety, school closures will become the norm.