How Federal Funds for Safe School Reopenings Would Pay Off
Money spent now to reopen schools would boost incomes of current K-12 students later, and the entire economy, for decades
Safe reopening of K-12 classrooms in the United States depends on several things, health experts and school officials say. Foremost, the growing pandemic needs to be reigned in, so there is less chance of spread in schools. But the coronavirus won’t be gone by fall, and it fact it’s likely to get worse, so experts say schools need to make significant changes to how they operate, and hire staff to handle new ways of educating and caring for kids.
But as I reported earlier this week, school districts simply do not have the funds to tackle the extensive mitigation efforts needed.
To recap the challenge, pre-K-12 schools across the country need somewhere between $117 billion and $245 billion, based on separate estimates from the American Federation of Teachers and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The money is needed for “instructional staff, distance learning, before- and after-school care, transportation, personal protective equipment, cleaning and health supplies, health staffing, custodial and cleaning staff, meeting children’s social and emotional needs and additional academic support for students.”
Because state tax revenues have plummeted along with the economy, budgets are being slashed, and most schools simply don’t have the money to do what the health experts say needs to be done. So educators are pleading for help from the federal government, a request that so far has been largely ignored. Adding to the misery educators are going through, today President Trump threatened to cut off existing federal aid to schools if they refuse to fully open.
Opening schools without serious and costly mitigation measures to prevent outbreaks, would be dangerous for children (yes, children are not immune from severe Covid-19 effects and death). Teachers, support staff and parents would also be at greater risk of infection.
As new cases of the disease skyrocket across the nation, efforts to combat the pandemic are back to square one, and the whole notion of reopening classrooms without monumental changes for the safety of children and educators goes against the advice of leading health experts and scientists who understand the transmission means and physical effects of Covid-19.
“The clock has been reset back 90 days to when the U.S. was heading towards its first peak,” says Mark Cameron, Mark Cameron, PhD, an immunologist and medical researcher in the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. “However we proceed with schooling our children this fall, if any different from the decisions made last spring, it will constitute an uncomfortable social and public health experiment for many in the U.S.,” Cameron tells me.
Yet as I reported previously, keeping schools closed would have a disastrous effect on the students’ education — online education is just not as effective, and dropout rates would rise — and on many parents’ ability to return to work, and therefore on the entire economy.
Big return on investment
One analysis flips that around and makes a simple economic case for federal funds: Money spent by the federal government to safely reopen schools would, if successful, more than pay off for decades to come.
Here’s the math and the logic:
If the entire school year is online only across the entire country, the economic impacts would follow K-12 students in reduced earnings throughout their lives, to the tune of $195 billion a year, due to sub-par learning via the online approach, plus dropouts, according to an analysis by McKinsey & Company, a research firm.
The effect would be worse among minorities, further widening the wealth gap that favors white people.
In that online scenario, McKinsey also projects some $395 billion in annual loss to the U.S. economy, as measured by GDP, come 2040, when all the current, soon-to-be less educated K-12 students would be in the workforce and American competitiveness would suffer on the global stage. None of these estimates account for other drags on the economy, like parents being unable to go to work, thus unable to spend.
“It would be valuable for political leaders to spend a day in some of the terribly difficult planning sessions that are going on in school districts around the country to see first hand about the challenges around opening schools,” Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tweeted yesterday.
From the beginning of this pandemic, politicians have weighed health and safety against economics. If the White House and Congress can come together and fund school reopenings, they might just serve both.