by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The high costs of closing schools are indisputable. Surveys of parents and teachers, as well as projections and trends in test scores, indicate that students are far behind in their learning, and that achievement gaps are growing. Economic estimates predict that students will lose $12,000–$15,000 in lifetime earnings for every month schools remain closed, and related U.S. GDP losses are forecast to run into the tens of trillions of dollars.
Even more important costs cannot be measured in dollars or test scores. The social isolation that students have struggled with in this “new normal” has led to widespread increases in child anxiety and depression, punctuated by tragic rises in adolescent mental-health emergencies and suicides. These costs are a strain for most students, and almost inconceivable for the very youngest, who may struggle to remember life without them.
Had blanket school closings been absolutely necessary to control COVID-19, their costs could be justified in retrospect. But we know now that they weren’t absolutely necessary. Children are roughly half as susceptible to COVID-19 as adults, and are far less likely to experience severe symptoms or increase transmission among adults. CDC data indicate that school-aged children make up under 10 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases and 0.08 percent of COVID-19 deaths, despite accounting for 23 percent of the population. And study after study shows that, when basic mitigation strategies are followed, in-school transmission is exceptionally rare.
Even for those who don’t trust the research, evidence that universal school closures could have been avoided is in plain sight. Data from my recently launched Return to Learn Tracker, which monitors over 8,500 school districts, show that thousands of districts have been fully in-person since November 2020. In fact, many districts stayed open when COVID-19 caseloads were three to six times last spring’s highs. Yet even under the watchful eye of school-district leaders, researchers, and the media, accounts of increased transmission in these districts haven’t materialized.