June 28, 2022

Jay Horton, 6, attends virtual first grade on the first day of school at the Horton family home in Arlington, Va., Tuesday, September 8, 2020.

Amanda Andrade Rhoades | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Newly confirmed Minister of Education Miguel Cardona will have his hands full as he embarks on the dangerous journey to reopen schools that have largely been closed for a year during the Covid pandemic.

“We have many great examples of schools across the country who have been able to safely reopen and do so while pursuing mitigation strategies,” Cardona said at his confirmation hearing last month.

Most states offer at least part-time learning, according to Education Week, with states like Texas, Iowa, and Florida being completely open to parents who wish.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued new reopening guidelines that include masking, social distancing, testing, and contact tracing. And President Joe Biden’s Covid Aid Act aims to provide funding for protective equipment, smaller classes, and modernization of ventilation systems.

Even so, many teacher unions have pushed themselves back and had to fish first to bring vaccination teachers to the top. Biden said Tuesday he wants all teachers to get at least one shot by the end of this month.

With controversy over how and when to reopen schools, there are growing signs that the closings will have a devastating impact on the economy well into the century as this generation of school children have reached their prime.

Additionally, the poorest in the country, who have fewer resources to make up for their children’s lost learning, will feel the damage most, further widening the income inequality gap in the US and around the world.

According to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, learning disabilities could reduce annual economic output in the US by an average of a quarter of a percentage point over the next 70 years.

While a fraction of a percent doesn’t seem like much, the study, using the Congressional Budget Office’s forecast of potential production, found that the loss to the economy could average $ 90 billion a year.

In 2045, when these students reached the ages of 29 to 39, their highest earning potential, those losses could reach half a percentage point, or nearly $ 150 billion, adjusted for inflation.

“This is a loss they will suffer for the rest of their lives,” said Huiyu Li, chief economist in the economic research division of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and co-author of the study. “When they reach their prime, that will have the greatest impact.”

Lower income over the lifetime

A study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development published in September looked at the issue from a global perspective. It should be noted that “students in grades 1 through 12 affected by the closings can expect 3 percent lower income over their lifetime”.

The impact will be greater for children from poor families.

“All the evidence suggests that students whose families are less able to support extracurricular learning experience greater learning losses than their beneficiary peers, which in turn will result in lower losses in lifetime income,” the study said .

In the United States, children from lower-income households are disproportionately affected by the shutdowns, say economists. Young people with low incomes in particular drop out of school at high rates to help their families with their parents’ job losses.

“We have seen early school leavers in low-income households increase dramatically,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at accounting firm Grant Thornton. “Black teenagers have increased their participation rates and helped cover basic home costs such as food and housing.”

Wealthy parents can do more to make up for lost learning, such as hiring tutors or home schooling their children, say economists. However, it is more difficult for low-income, often less educated, parents to replace the reduction in public investment.

This, in turn, could stifle “upward mobility between generations,” Li said.

“We want children in this population to be the first to go to college,” she said. “Now it’s going to be harder for some of these kids to be the first generation to go to college.”

Lower the standard of living for everyone

The economically disadvantaged will not be the only ones to suffer the consequences.

In addition to “reducing the lifelong potential income of these students,” we are also reducing the talent pool that the country needs to nurture at a time when the population is aging, “said Swonk, pointing out that birth rates and life expectancy is falling and immigration is halted due to the policies of the Trump administration, contributing to persistent skills shortages.

“It’s not just about undermining individual revenue,” she said, “but the whole economic pie. This undermines the ability to grow as a whole.”

In addition, social security and other needs of an aging population depend on the income of younger workers.

“Today’s children are tomorrow’s workforce, and tomorrow’s workforce will support the retirement of today’s people. I think it’s important to keep that in mind,” Li said.

Society can take steps to limit the disadvantage if the political will is there.

Investing in year-round education and funding for childcare could help children catch up and get parents back to work.

Studies from war-torn areas and regions hit by natural disasters show that learning can be caught up on with significant investment, Swonk said.

“We need to provide the resources to fix this,” said Swonk. “They want to make sure that the states have sufficient financial resources. We all benefit from the education of the people. Education is one of the most basic public goods.”

Playing catch-up

However, it is not yet clear whether adequate funding will be included in the cards.

Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion Covid relief effort earmarked $ 130 billion to reopen public schools safely, including ventilation and social distancing.

But healing education will cost more money, said Li and Swonk. And the appetite for more funding is unclear in the current climate in Washington. Biden’s bill is expected to pass without a single Republican vote. The small majority of Democrats in Congress means further spending will need Republican support.

With the most dramatic effects of lost learning past many years, withdrawing money from Congress now may become more difficult.

“The cost we are illustrating will manifest itself in the very long term,” said Li. “I understand that there are more pressing issues in the near future,” she said. “To really get out of the pandemic, we have to solve the health problem. The ultimate solution is to get people vaccinated.”