“The Economist” Says Schools Should Reopen Immediately

The Economist is an influential publication based in London. It writes, as its name suggests, about world economic affairs. In its current issue, the publication makes the case that the schools must quickly reopen in order to restart the economy.

The Economist contends governments across the world should open schools as soon as possible. It argues that so long as schools are closed, the achievement gap between affluent and working-class children will grow. Its editors suggest that the reopening of schools should be done in stages, with the youngest children returning first, since they seem to be the least at risk.

This is the “short-read” version of their argument.

Covid-19 has shut the world’s schools. Three in four children live in countries where all classrooms are closed. The disruption is unprecedented. Unless it ends soon, its effect on young minds could be devastating…

During some epidemics keeping children at home is wise; they are efficient spreaders of diseases such as seasonal flu. However, they appear to be less prone to catching and passing on covid-19. Closing schools may bring some benefit in slowing the spread of the disease, but less than other measures. Against this are stacked the heavy costs to children’s development, to their parents and to the economy.

A few countries, such as Denmark, are gradually reopening schools. Others, including Italy, say they will not do so until the autumn. In America, despite recent calls from President Donald Trump for schools to open, most states plan to keep their classrooms closed for the rest of the academic year—and possibly longer. That is a mistake. As countries ease social distancing, schools should be among the first places to unlock.

Consider the costs of barring children from the classroom. No amount of helicopter parenting or videoconferencing can replace real-life teachers, or the social skills acquired in the playground. Even in the countries best prepared for e-learning, such as South Korea, virtual school is less good than the real thing.

Poorer children suffer most. Zoom lessons are little use if your home lacks good Wi-Fi, or if you have to fight with three siblings over a single phone. And whereas richer families often include well-educated parents who prod their offspring to do their homework and help when they get stuck, poorer families may not.

In normal times school helps level the playing field. Without it, the achievement gap between affluent and working-class children will grow. By one estimate, American eight-year-olds whose learning stopped altogether with the lockdown could lose nearly a year’s maths by autumn, as they fail to learn new material and forget much of what they already knew.

School matters for parents, too, especially those with young children. Those who work at home are less productive if distracted by loud wails and the eerie silence that portends jam being spread on the sofa. Those who work outside the home cannot do so unless someone minds their offspring. And since most child care is carried out by mothers, they will lose ground in the workplace while schools remain shut.

In poor countries the costs are even greater. Schools there often provide free lunches, staving off malnutrition, and serve as hubs for vaccinating children against other diseases. Pupils who stay at home now may never return. If the lockdown pushes their families into penury, they may have to go out to work. Better to re-open schools, so that parents can earn and children can study.

The obvious rejoinder is that shutting schools brings benefits. Covid-19 can be deadly. Parents do not want their children to catch it or to give it to grandma.

In a longer article, the Economist expands on its view that keeping schools closed will repress learning and widen inequality.

Schools have striven to remain open during wars, famines and even storms. The extent and length of school closures now happening in the rich world are unprecedented. The costs are horrifying. Most immediately, having to take care of children limits the productivity of parents. But in the long run that will be dwarfed by the amount of lost learning. Those costs will fall most heavily on those children who are most in need of education. Without interventions the effects could last a lifetime.

For these reasons Singapore in 2003 cut its month-long June holiday by two weeks to make up for a fortnight of school closures during the sars epidemic. Closing schools even briefly hurts children’s prospects. In America third-graders (seven-year-olds) affected by weather-related closures do less well in state exams. French-speaking Belgian students hit by a two-month teachers’ strike in 1990 were more likely to repeat a grade, and less likely to complete higher education, than similar Flemish-speaking students not affected by the strike. According to some studies, over the long summer break young children in America lose between 20% and 50% of the skills they gained over the school year.

Closures will hurt the youngest schoolchildren most. “You can make up for lost maths with summer school. But you can’t easily do that with the stuff kids learn very young,” says Matthias Doepke of Northwestern University. Social and emotional skills such as critical thinking, perseverance and self-control are predictors of many things, from academic success and employment to good health and the likelihood of going to jail. Whereas older children can be plonked in front of a computer, younger ones learn far more when digital study is supervised by an adult…

Of course schooling has not stopped completely, as it does during holidays. Nearly nine in ten affected rich countries are providing some form of distance-learning (compared with fewer than one in four poor countries). But video-conferencing has its limits. For poorer children, internet connections may be ropey. Devices may have to be shared and homes may be overcrowded or noisy. Of the poorest quarter of American children, one in four does not have access to a computer at home.

Less well-off children everywhere are less likely to have well-educated parents who coax them to attend remote lessons and help them with their work. In Britain more than half of pupils in private schools are taking part in daily online classes, compared with just one in five of their peers in state schools, according to the Sutton Trust, a charity (private schools are more likely to offer such lessons). In the first weeks of the lockdown some American schools reported that over a third of their students had not even logged in to the school system, let alone attended classes. Meanwhile, elite schools report nearly full attendance and the rich have hired teachers as full-time tutors….

Closures in Britain could increase the gap in school performance between children on school meals (a proxy for economic disadvantage) and those not on school meals, fears Becky Francis of the Education Endowment Foundation, another charity. Over the past decade the gap, measured by grades in tests, has narrowed by roughly 10%, but she thinks school closures could, at the very least, reverse this progress. At least over summer, teachers are not on tap for anyone. In the current lockdown some students can still quench their thirst for education not just with highly educated parents but also with teachers; others will have access to neither.

The journal also ran a story on how young people may be less likely to catch or pass on covid-19.

The three articles left out one very important group that is necessary for the reopening of schools: the adults who staff schools. Teachers, principals, and support staff. Unlike little children, the adults are vulnerable to COVID-19. How strange not to consider their safety. How bizarre to ignore the well-being of the adults who must be present for schools to reopen.

What would be the value of reopening the schools if the teachers and staff are not safe? One case of COVID among the teachers or staff, and the schools would quickly close again, causing even greater disruption.

The view of The Economist appears to be shaped by its eagerness to restart the economy. Everyone is eager to restart the economy and to end the prolonged period of shutdown that threatens financial catastrophe. But wouldn’t it be best to wait until the risks are lower?

It is worth noting that the U.K. has an even higher death rate than the U.S. In fact, the U.K. death rate is double the U.S. death rate. Boris Johnson was as skeptical at the beginning of the pandemic as Trump. Then he got the virus and was in intensive care. I think he takes the threat seriously now. I doubt that teachers in the U.K. or the U.S. or the rest of the world are ready to put their lives at risk to restart the economy, especially when the infection rate and the death rate continues to rise in both countries.

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