Updated: Aug 24, 2021
By Noah Jun
When the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered businesses, cities, and even entire states last spring, people soon debated the optimal method of instruction for K-12 schools in the fall, weighing interests such as public health and the intellectual well-being of students. According to a U.S. Census Bureau survey in August, about 93 percent of households with school-age children reported that “distance learning” was being used in some capacity for educating their children. As the 2020-2021 school year progressed, more and more schools transitioned to a complete reopening, a manifestation of both President Trump’s calls for schools to reopen as normal in the start of the fall and President Biden’s goal for 51 percent of K-8 schools to return to fully in-person instruction. Despite a largely successful vaccination rollout, new variants of the coronavirus and waves of increased infection rates have hampered schools’ efforts for in-person learning, and it seems that virtual education is once again being considered for the upcoming fall. Teachers’ unions have also pushed back against a full reopening due to concerns about their members’ safety and the lack of safety measures undertaken by schools. This article will argue, however, that by understanding the costs and benefits of virtual learning, the hesitation and opposition to full in-person learning, or at the very least in-person learning three days a week, should not have won out last year nor should win out again this year.
Advocates of closing schools claim that a main benefit of virtual learning (and therefore a cost of in-person education) would be the evasion of unnecessary infections. Some schools’ treatment of past pandemics such as the Spanish Flu and H1N1, however, provides useful comparisons for the current COVID crisis and shows that the purported benefits of virtual learning are overstated. The Spanish Flu and H1N1 are helpful to examine because the former was very widespread and deadly while the latter is more recent and affected an America that looks rather similar to the one COVID impacts today.
In the fall of 1918, cases of the Spanish flu, a “highly contagious disease,” soared, leading to school closures nationwide except notably in Chicago and New York City. These cities’ close monitoring of students and quick isolation of symptomatic individuals allowed schools to remain open throughout the surge. As New York City’s then health commissioner Royal Copeland argued, keeping students in school allowed health officials to teach them how to protect themselves against the pandemic, constantly surveil them, and medically inspect them daily, instead of keeping them at home. Although the Spanish Flu was more deadly than the seasonal flu and New York City kept large public spaces like schools and theaters open, the city’s “excess death rate per 1,000 was reportedly 4.7, compared with 6.5 in Boston and 7.3 in Philadelphia.” Chicago also avoided excessive deaths and was not forced to shutter schools like the rest of the country in large part due to its similar rules and regulations. This historical case highlights how the right planning can keep schools open and avoid uncontrollable infection numbers. The question then becomes how this 1918 flu translates to our modern COVID-19 pandemic.
Although COVID can infect children, evidence shows that schools do not have the same super-spreading capabilities as other crowded areas. Last October, Professor Emily Oster of Brown University found that a survey of “almost 200,000 kids in 47 states from the last two weeks of September revealed an infection rate of 0.13 percent among students and 0.24 percent among staff,” both incredibly low rates. In response to this, one could fairly argue that this one survey is not definitive proof of lower infection rates among children than adults and that schools could not reasonably reopen from this survey alone. More and more evidence, however, has emerged throughout the year supporting Professor Oster’s survey; a study of CDC data from February reported that children were half as likely as adults to contract COVID. With the correct monitoring and mitigation efforts, such as a regime of testing, close supervision, social distancing, and other precautions (similar to those undertaken by New York and Chicago schools in 1918), students could have easily returned to school for the second—and even the first—half of the year without any significant threat of infection. This case study thus helps dismiss the fear and supposed cost of in-person learning; it does not inherently cause spiking COVID cases nor prolong the pandemic. School districts hesitating to reopen should be convinced by and follow the examples from over 100 years ago, not to mention the evidence of successful school reopenings from this past year.
The H1N1 pandemic of 2009 also provides more recent historical guidance that states should have followed last fall. The H1N1 pandemic hit the U.S. in April 2009, seasonally similar to COVID’s eruption in March 2020, and caused more than 700 school closures. At first, when much about the virus was unknown, schools justifiably sent their students home. After health officials learned more about H1N1’s behavior and how to control it, however, they recommended “that schools should not close down” in the fall or due to an outbreak but should “[keep] sick students and staff out,” focus on mitigation efforts such as sanitization and symptom screenings, and only use closure as a last resort effort to curb rampant case numbers or to protect a large proportion of students with underlying conditions. Many schools followed this advice in the fall of 2009, reopening in the beginning but closing for a few days if too many students became sick. Proponents argue a benefit of virtual learning would be that this choice avoids these increased case numbers and the waste of resources for schools to reopen, only to close again a few weeks later. The schools that were forced to shut down, however, did not seem to implement strong mitigation and isolation efforts, which caused easily avoidable infections and closures. Districts thus should have replicated the reopening strategies used in past pandemics that would have allowed them to negate this supposed downside.
Closing schools and opting for virtual learning has incurred more costs than benefits. For instance, keeping students at home inevitably leads to increased social isolation. These children, at the most formative age of their lives, lose out on face-to-face interactions, the loss of which could result in “higher rates of anxiety [and] depression.” Students are barred from “the school environment” which “is critical for fostering academic motivation and social development.” Although it is still unknown how students’ educations have been impacted in the long-term, research over this past year has already started to measure how much learning has been lost; one study by Megan Kuhfeld at the Brookings Institution of test scores shows that while students in grades 3-8 during the fall of 2020 “performed similarly in reading to same-grade students in fall 2019,” students’ achievement in math was 5 to 10 percentile points lower than that of last year. The same study found that students’ academic gains in reading were slightly less in 2020 than 2019, and their gains in math were markedly less. Furthermore, students are forced to contend with issues like spotty Wi-Fi and added distractions that are also sure to lower their productivity at learning times. Requiring a parent or older sibling to stay home could hurt households by barring potential sources of income, and hiring a babysitter would incur extra costs. Closing schools thus has negative repercussions for all members of the household.
There are some costs to reopening schools, however. Bringing students and teachers back into the classroom does undeniably create the potential for the coronavirus to infect people otherwise kept at home and out of occupied, albeit socially distanced, classrooms. This risk of teachers and students contracting COVID has already been established as relatively insignificant, though. Another drawback to reopening schools is the immense price tag on extra cleaning services, transportation, food, preventative measures, and other mitigation equipment to reopen safely. The CDC estimates opening schools and incorporating safety measures would incur an extra cost between 55 and 442 dollars per student. The CDC even envisions that number increasing the longer the pandemic looms large. To counteract these exorbitant costs, however, about 193 billion dollars have been legislated through three relief packages since last March. Taxpayers will undoubtedly bear increased taxes as a result of these stimulus acts, but this route is less detrimental than the alternative—a generation of less productive workers—that will be discussed later.
It is also important to consider the social dimension to the costs of school closure, as the pandemic has further exacerbated divides between different groups of students. For example, private schools have fared much better in reopening schools, largely in part because of their endowments and donations as well as “larger campuses, smaller classes, and greater autonomy.” With in-person learning comes near-normal education and development, which benefit those who can pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition while low-income families who cannot are left behind with distance learning and falling test scores. Students from poor families and states are also more likely to not even have access to a device for learning, as “26.5 percent of children living in homes where there is often not enough food to go around...are rarely or never able to get online to learn.” The decision to close schools has thus unnecessarily amplified preexisting differences in learning achievement and accessibility since it inherently affects those in public schools more.
Since the negative impacts of distance learning have been felt more among lower income brackets, they have also more adversely hurt blacks and Hispanics, races that have been and continue to be among the poorest in the nation. A 2009 estimate by McKinsey valued the “gap between white students and black and Hispanic ones” to cost the US between 310 and 525 billion dollars annually. The same study gauged even higher amounts lost due to the gap in achievement between high- and low-income students. With black and Hispanic students more likely than their peers to receive a lower-quality education through remote instruction, distance learning only stands to perpetuate this inefficiency of lost economic output, not to mention propagating deeply entrenched systemic inequality. The study by McKinsey also projects the average student would earn 61,000 to 82,000 dollars less over his or her lifetime because of “COVID-19 learning losses,” and it expects black and Hispanic students to suffer even more diminished lifetime wages. Regardless of race, by the time this generation of students enter the workforce, there is a chance it will be “less skilled” and “less productive” than other generations, which could lead to hundreds of billions of dollars in American GDP lost to other countries that prioritized preserving the educational quality of its students, to say nothing of the knock-on welfare costs that a less skilled and productive workforce would generate.
Keeping our nation's youth at home and out of school has drastic economic implications. Studies show that closing schools and using virtual learning are no substitute for traditional education in terms of students’ intellectual advancement, social skills, and overall well-being. Nevertheless, different parties have been quick to place sometimes irrational fears about the pandemic above this irreplaceable facet of youth development. Past pandemics can provide insightful guidance into how to successfully reopen schools and mitigate infection levels—a risk that has already proven to be largely insignificant. Certain groups, already considered to be disadvantaged, have fallen behind even further due to COVID, which could lead to serious losses in the nation’s productivity while further establishing epistemic inequality. Although many schools were mistaken in refusing to offer traditional learning throughout this past year, it is not too late for most, if not all, schools to make whole-hearted commitments to reopen in the fall to avoid the vast negative consequences that emerge from keeping students at home.