The Economic Impact and Health Concerns of Going Back to School

The Pros and Cons for Teachers, Students, and Parents

A woman wearing a mask sits at the park and works on her laptop.

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Almost every K-12 school in the U.S. closed in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Overnight, teachers, parents, and students had to shift to distance learning. In fall 2020, teachers, parents, and students are trying to navigate a safe return to class. It hasn’t been easy, especially as COVID-19 transmission rates don’t appear to be abating.

In making the decision, states must consider the level of community transmission when creating reopening plans. As a result, some states have delayed reopening. Others have mandated either in-person or online learning, but most have left the decision up to local districts or health authorities. Many districts are choosing a hybrid combination of in-person and online education. 

For parents, none of this is easy, either. A New York Times survey found that only one in seven parents are sending their children to school full time. Four out of five have no help in teaching children at home. More than half must educate their children while also holding down a full-time job.

All of these decisions will have economic impacts—on individuals, families, and the greater economy.

The Economic Impact of In-Person Education 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends in-person education. It advises that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, as long as precautions are taken.

Time out of the classroom disrupts academic progress. 

The AAP’s chief concern is the loss of educational progress while students are absent from the classroom. During a typical summer break between seventh and eighth grade, students lose 36% of school-year gains in reading and 50% of their gains in math.

In-person education helps students in other ways, too:

  • Enhances social and emotional learning
  • Provides mental and behavioral health support
  • Provides lunches to low-income children
  • Customizes support for special needs students

Students returning to the classroom has enormous consequences for the economy, too.

Economic Effects

In-person education allows parents to fully return to work. In a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll, half of the parents surveyed said it would be “harder” or “impossible” to do their jobs if in-person education were not offered. Even those who normally work from home won’t be distracted by having to educate children.

Without in-person education, 21% of parents said they would have to find a different job, according to a poll. Another 15% said they would leave the workforce entirely. That would reduce household income, slowing any economic recovery. Most parents (66%) admit that having children at home instead of at school has hampered their productivity at work. Almost half (45%) worry that their career advancement has suffered as a result. 

Looking to the future, a Brookings Institution analysis calculated the lost future earnings for every month a child is out of school. Four months of lost education translates to a cut of $33,464 in future earnings across 45 years of employment. For the U.S. as a whole, that’s $2.5 trillion of lost future income and demand. 

With coronavirus potentially lurking in every classroom, many states, school districts, and parents say the benefits aren’t worth the risks. 

Risks and Costs of In-Person Learning

Although children are less likely than adults to get COVID-19, cases are on the rise. Children were only 8.8% of reported cases and less than 0% to 0.8% of coronavirus-related deaths, depending on the state reporting the data (20 U.S. states reported no child deaths associated with COVID-19). That doesn’t mean they aren’t at risk. Almost 700 children experienced Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome, a potentially fatal condition associated with COVID-19.

During the last two weeks of July, there was a 40% increase in child cases. As a result, many parents are afraid of in-person education. For example, 73% of Floridians strongly support statewide closure of schools for fall 2020. Even while not symptomatic, children could spread the disease. Children may host more coronaviruses in their upper respiratory tracts than adults. 

Hybrid instruction combines some days of in-person instruction with some days of remote learning. This could be the riskiest because students may become exposed at daycare centers or with babysitters. 

The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) offers guidelines to safely reopen in-person education. That reduces the risk of COVID-19 spread, but parents and teachers are still concerned for their safety. Many schools don’t have the funding for these extraordinary measures. 

Most school districts don’t have the funding to open schools safely.

The American Federation of Teachers estimated schools would need an additional $116.5 billion to reopen safely. That includes:

  • More teachers to allow for social distancing in classes ($35 billion)
  • Additional bus routes and cleaning ($9.6 billion)
  • In-school personal protective equipment and enhanced cleaning ($9.9 billion)
  • Counseling for pandemic-related trauma ($7.6 billion) 
  • Additional school nurses ($5.6 billion)
Pros of Going Back to School
  • Keeps learning fresh

  • Provides indirect benefits, such as enhanced behavioral and educational support and nutrition

  • Allows parents to work

  • Benefits retail industry

Cons of Going Back to School
  • Risk of COVID-19 exposure to children, parents, and teachers

  • Schools don’t have funds to reopen safely

The Economic Impact of Online Learning

The main benefit of online learning during the pandemic is that it minimizes the risks of children becoming infected. It also limits spreading the disease to each other, teachers, school staff, and their families. There are also other benefits, such as cost to school districts and flexibility for students.

The disadvantages are also notable. Online learning means one parent must stay home from work to supervise the child. Not all children have access to the computer equipment required. Teachers report that it’s difficult to motivate students, especially younger children, through a computer.

Economic Effects of Online Learning

Online learning is often less expensive. Many states that have contracted with cyber charter schools found costs were lower per student then their own brick-and-mortar schools. Online schools don’t have to pay for building maintenance, transportation, and athletics. Many states use K12, a full-time, free online public school option. It offers education that can be customized for each student. When used as an additional tool, online courses can free up teachers to focus more on engaging and mentoring students.

These benefits could be critical to school districts and states that are facing budget shortfalls from the 2020 recession. Some states are forecasting more than a 20% decline in revenue for 2021.

Online education also provides flexibility for students. Those in poorly-funded districts can receive better education with an online program. This could reduce the U.S. achievement gap. It also allows high-school students to take college courses, such as the program offered by Arizona State University Prep Digital. 

Retailers may benefit more from a shift to online learning, too. The National Retail Federation reported that parents it surveyed plan to spend almost $34 billion, about 30% more than in 2019, on back-to-school supplies and gear. Online learning means families need to buy more laptops and computer accessories. College spending will be almost $68 billion, up 25%. 

Risks and Costs of Online Learning

Teachers report that online learning makes it hard for them to motivate their students through two layers of computer screens. They lose their own sense of being a good teacher. Online learning also confronts teachers with the huge inequalities their students face in their home lives. This is especially critical for the nearly 25% of children living in single-parent households.

Online learning reveals the disparity in household access to broadband and computer equipment, too. According to Microsoft’s analysis of FCC data and its own research, half of Americans (163 million people) do not use the internet at broadband speeds. 

Two-thirds of parents worry that their children will fall behind if schools don’t reopen. More than 75% of low-income parents are concerned even if schools offer online instruction. 

Those fears aren’t without merit. Research done in June 2020 assessed how students performed during the spring pandemic using Zearn, an online math program. The study found that children from low-income areas experienced a persistent 50% reduction in learning. Meanwhile, students from high-income areas also experienced a reduction in learning, but soon returned to baseline levels.

Pros of Online Learning
  • Lower risk of getting COVID-19

  • Less expensive

  • Provides greater flexibility to students

Cons of Online Learning
  • Difficult to motivate students

  • Keeps parent from going to work

  • Many students don’t have the necessary online equipment

Bottom Line

In the fall of 2020, states vary in their approach to reopening K-12 schools. A lot depends on local transmission rates.

Most authorities recommend in-person education as the best way to serve students. That’s especially true for low-income students who often rely on the school system for lunches, counseling, and other services. They may lack access to broadband or computer equipment at home needed for online education. 

Many school districts don’t have the funds either to comply with safety protocols for in-person learning or to supply students with online equipment. Regardless of what health officials, school administrators, and parents ultimately decide, the economic effects will be serious and far-reaching.