Right now parents are just trying to survive day-to-day. Six months into this pandemic things are still very hard for many people and it's hard to think beyond tomorrow. But a new study suggests that lawmakers and school divisions should be looking to the future because the educational interruptions happening today could have a lasting impact on a generation and our nation's economic future.
The study, conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that school closures—which it defined as students not attending school, even for remote learning—could affect students' future earning potential.
In the frenzy to stop the spread of the coronavirus in March and April, state officials issued stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders that closed schools. School districts had to quickly shuffle to set up online learning platforms, but the switch was far from smooth. Many students didn't log on for virtual class for weeks at a time — particularly students from lower-income families who might not have access to reliable high-speed internet or other resources necessary for online learning.
It seems that some students may not have even logged on at all, missing the last few months of the spring semester.
The NBER study modeled "school and child care closures as a reduction in the governmental investment in children corresponding to six fewer months of schooling." It found that six months of closures, "could result in an average 1% less earned every year over a worker's lifetime," according to Marketwatch.
It found that, on average, the share of children 4 to 14 who don't get a high school degree in the future will increase 3.8%, and the share of children who get a college degree will drop by 2.7%. The economic impact will also be worse for younger children, who have more time before they enter the job market. A 6-year-old, for example, could lose $10,300 while a 10-year-old might lose $6,410 "after they join the labor market and stay there for approximately 45 years," according to Marketwatch's analysis.
Kids will also be affected unevenly based on their parents' income bracket: "Broadly speaking, children with poorer parents suffer more," the study says. "First, even without any parental adjustments in investments, children from lower-income households suffer more from the school closures, since for them a larger part of educational investment comes from the government. Second, as a reaction to the school closures, rich parents increase their investment into children by more than poor parents."
That makes even more sense when you take into account April data collected by the Pew Research Center, which found that about half of upper-income parents (51%) said "their elementary, middle or high school children have received a lot of online instruction since their school closed" while only about 38% of parents in a lower-income tier said the same. In fact, Pew found that 29% of parents with lower incomes said their children's school "provided not much or no instruction" since schools closed in the spring, versus just 13% of parents in the upper-income bracket.
All this data taken together reinforces a recurring theme of the pandemic: that its impact has been incredibly unequal. Black people and people with lower incomes have disproportionately been infected and killed by the coronavirus. Though the NBER study did not break down the economic impact by race, it does show that the children of lower-income families will be more affected by school closures, and that the children of parents who have lost income due to the virus will also be affected more (and it's worth noting that data shows communities of color have been hit hardest economically as well).
The NBER study does note that schools closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and their data doesn't model the "potential health benefits of these closures." But a July study published by JAMA found that the closures may have saved the lives of 40,000 people, Marketwatch reported.
So what can be done about this and what can parents who are already at capacity do to change this? According to experts we need our lawmakers to disrupt educational inequity. Parents can't do this on their own, but they can vote and hold government officials to task on inequity. Policy changes and funding are needed to ensure that the nation's most vulnerable kids have the chance to grow, learn and earn as much as their wealthier peers.