End the School Shutdown

As promised, this is the full op/ed that Ryan Sullivan and I had published in the print edition of the Wall Street Journal on October 21. Because today (Saturday) is my 70th birthday, I will not be working. So I might not reply to comments until Sunday or Monday.

End the School Shutdown

In-person classes turn out not to cause spikes in cases or fatality. But keeping kids home has a high cost.

By David R. Henderson and Ryan Sullivan

Tens of millions of students started the school year completely online, including those in 13 of the 15 largest school districts in the U.S. The primary reason is concern over safety for students and staff. But recent data are shifting the discussion on school safety and infection rates of Covid-19. They argue strongly for opening K-12 schools.

Previous evidence has suggested that schools are not superspreaders. That research came from other countries (whose rates and environments are different) or very specific cases in America, such as YMCA summer camps. While this suggested little impact on infection rates from opening the schools, it was possible that the unique environment of U.S. public schools would cause different outcomes.

But they’re about the same. A group of researchers, spearheaded by Brown University Professor Emily Oster, have created and made available the most comprehensive databaseon schools and Covid case rates for students and staff since the pandemic started. Her data—covering almost 200,000 kids across 47 states from the last two weeks of September—showed a Covid-19 case rate of 0.13% among students and 0.24% among staff. That’s a shockingly and wonderfully low number. By comparison, the current overall U.S. case rate is 2.6%, an order of magnitude higher.

Other research has shown that hospitalization and fatality rates for school-age children are also extremely low. People 19 and younger account for only 1.2% of Covid-19 hospitalizations in the U.S. during the peak of the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that of all Covid-19 deaths up to Oct. 10, only 74 were of children under age 15. During the 2019-20 flu season, the CDC estimates, 434 children under 18 died of the flu. Yet we don’t shut down schools over the flu.

What about teachers? We still don’t have hard information on the fatality rates for American teachers, but the new data have shown that Covid-19 case rates are low for staff working in the schools. That said, opening schools in other countries has had little impact on the fatality rates of teachers. Sweden never shut its schools, and teachers there have had the same fatality rate during this pandemic as IT technicians, who can often work from home. The cost of reopening the schools, measured in additional cases, hospitalizations, and fatalities, is low.

And there are weighty costs of not opening. A report from McKinsey & Co. found that disrupting in-person classes through January 2021 would result in the loss of $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings for the average K-12 student in the U.S. Another study led by Georgetown University’s George Psacharopoulos found that shutting down all American schools for only four months would result in $2.5 trillion in lost future wages.

One reason economists care about lost earnings is that they increase the risk of death. Lower incomes mean people aren’t able to buy safer cars and afford healthier foods, which inevitably leads to shorter lifespans. Even if the reports overstate the financial losses dramatically, these are large losses and will surely lead to tragic health outcomes in the future. Moreover, mental-health surveys indicate that keeping young children isolated from each other for months has devastating psychological consequences.

Economists have specific methods to evaluate the trade-offs between lives and economic activity in a cost-benefit framework. The standard methodology is to place a value on the number of lives saved. A reasonable number is $4.5 million per life. This number is based on how much people need to be paid in the labor market to risk death and so is a good approximation of the monetary value of American lives lost during Covid. They then compare that value with lost gross domestic product. How many lives would need to be saved to justify even only a future $1 trillion loss in GDP? Standard economic logic suggests the number would have to be around 222,000. Given the low Covid-19 case and death rates among minors and teachers, the actual number of lives saved by maintaining the school shutdown is almost certainly an order of magnitude lower.

Moreover, keeping schools closed has an immediate impact on working-class families. As one study from the University of Chicago details, roughly 50 million Americans are dealing with child-care issues now, and the lack of in-person schooling exacerbates that. The problem is most critical for single-parent, low-income and minority households.

The school shutdown also increases inequality between the sexes as women drop out of the workforce at shocking levels. In September there were 865,000 fewer women over 19 in the labor force than in August. By contrast, only 216,000 men over 19 left the workforce over that same period. Much of that, probably most, is due to the lack of in-person schooling. Even for parents who stay in the workforce, not holding school causes many to shift work priorities or decrease total hours worked, as a study from the IZA Institute of Labor Economics showed.

The losses from keeping children out of school are huge and the benefits are small. Let’s get kids back into the classroom—and on the playground.

Mr. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Mr. Sullivan is an associate professor of economics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

Two notes:

  1. For Bryan Caplan-type reasons about the value of education, I persuaded my co-author to use an estimate of $1 trillion in human capital losses rather than the $2.5 trillion from the Georgetown study. Given the other psychological losses, though, I’m quite confident that $1 trillion is an underestimate.
  2. In my post on October 21, commenter Kevin Dick noted a stock-flow error in the last sentence of the third paragraph.