Don’t forget about the children when closing schools

School buses for Sandusky City Schools. Photo from Sandusky City Schools website.

This fall, 1.7 million Ohio children will return to school for the first time in nearly half a year. Coronavirus brought about a second, unexpected summertime for Ohio’s K-12 students, surprising parents across the country with a new role as full-time educators and forcing teachers across the state to become remote educators. In the meantime, Ohio’s students suffered.

The goal of school closings is to slow the spread of COVID-19. Schools are locations of high traffic and high contact in close quarters, so the potential for spread of infectious disease in these locations is high. This is why the influenza protocol has placed school closures high on the list for social distancing measures to slow the spread of disease.

COVID-19, however, has had an uneven impact on people of different ages in the state of Ohio. While not a single school-age person in the state of Ohio has died of COVID-19, 90% of Ohio’s COVID-19 deaths have been suffered by those age 60 and up.

This means school closures are only a moderately effective tool for reducing COVID-19 deaths. According to a recent study in The Lancet that surveyed 616 studies and conducted meta-analysis on 16 high-quality studies, school closures alone would only prevent about 2-4% of deaths caused by COVID-19. A recent analysis conducted by my firm found this means we should only expect school closures in the fall to save at most a couple hundred lives.

Saving lives is important. But it is also something that we pay heavily to do. A recent analysis by the Brookings Institute suggests that learning loss by students over the period of COVID-19 school closures could cost students tens of thousands of dollars in future lost wages. Using more conservative assumptions than the Brookings study, we find that further school closures could cost students more than $22 billion in future discounted earnings due to learning loss over that time period.

This implies that school closures act as an intergenerational transfer. By closing schools, we extend the lives of a couple hundred elderly from anywhere from a few months to a couple decades by taking out a loan to be paid for with lost future earnings of children. Thus, a few mostly elderly people receive very large benefits paid for with relatively smaller costs (on the order of $18,000 or so) on a per-person basis for 1.7 million children.

When using standard valuation techniques, the lost future wages for today’s children, even when discounting to factor in present bias, vastly outweigh the present risk of death reduction brought about by school closures. This isn’t to say school closures are bad policy. School closures could be favored by policymakers who heavily prefer current lives being saved to future benefits for today’s children.

School closures could also be justified by a policymaker who wants to spare a small number of people of a large cost by spreading that cost (albeit inefficiently) across a large number of other people. When push comes to shove, however, the reality is that school closures for COVID-19 are strategy to reduce current risk of death for mostly elderly people financed with the future wages of today’s children.

Rob Moore
Rob Moore is the principal for Scioto Analysis, a public policy analysis firm based in Columbus. Moore has worked as an analyst in the public and nonprofit sectors and has analyzed diverse issue areas such as economic development, environment, education, and public health. He holds a Master of Public Policy from the University of California Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Denison University.