Cost/Benefit analysis of School Closures in the US

by anna.becca.g@gmail.com2 min read10th Jul 20208 comments

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TLDR: Covid 19 school closures may do more harm than good, because years of schooling affects overall life expectancy and quality of life for millions of children.

This is my very first post here, so if I apologize if I say something that has been said many times before or that does not seem to belong on this forum. That said, here goes...

Coronavirus school closures and the move to online schooling has resulted in a very significant decrease in the quality of education in the US. In person schooling provides a lot of important resources, especially for low income students, that cannot be easily accessed in a poor home environment. Online education also makes it much easier to cheat, and this provides students with less incentive to learn. Additionally, since many parents work full-time, this also means that students have limited adult supervision throughout the day. Thus, I'm going to assume for the purposes of this argument, that online schooling is roughly equivalent to no schooling at all.

There have been many studies showing that additional years of schooling correlate with longer life expectancy, higher income, and lower incarceration rates. Now obviously, you might worry about a correlation/causation problem with that kind of statement. However, there have also been several twin studies that help eliminate this bias. These studies follow identical twins who grow up in the same home but have different levels of educational attainment. The results of theses studies still show a statistically significant difference between the incomes of twins who have different educational status. Now, these studies are not perfect, but there have been several of them and they tend to get similar results. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3359051/ Thus, I think it's fair to conclude that years of schooling, particularly at the high school level, have a positive impact on income. There are no twin studies that I know of regarding education and life expectancy specifically in the US, but I think that if education impacts income, it likely impacts life expectancy in a statistically significant way. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3359051/

Another thing to note is that the impact of education, and higher quality education is often most significant for low income children. https://www.nber.org/papers/w20847#:~:text=Event%2Dstudy%20and%20instrumental%20variable,of%20adult%20poverty%3B%20effects%20are

Now, it stands to reason that if years/quality of schooling has a significant impact on both the quantity and quality of life of students, then we must accurately take that into account when deciding the costs and benefits of school closures. It is difficult given the currently available data to accurately estimate exactly how much school closures will affect children.

Let's say hypothetically, one year of school closures takes 1 year off of every child's life on average. There are 56 million school children in the United States right now. That means that 56 million years of life are lost with such a policy.

On the other hand, scientists estimate Covid 19 kills approximately 1% of all people who get the virus. (In the US the number is higher but that is likely due to lack of testing and asymptomatic cases) https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01738-2 Herd immunity is also estimated to be approximately 66% of the population. 66% of 350 million is 231 million. 1% of 231 million is 2.31. This is a total of 2.31 million deaths. However, 8 out of 10 covid deaths are in people 65 years or older. Many of the deaths occur in people with very serious pre-existing health conditions. 45% of deaths occur in people over the age of 80. Given that life expectancy in the US is approximately 79 years, let's assume that on average people who die of covid would have lived 15 years longer had they never contracted the disease.

Now let's assume school closures reduce corona cases overall by 85% until the development of a vaccine. That means the total number of lives saved due to school closures is 0.85*2.31million=1.96 million lives. Now, to calculate total years of life saved we multiply 1.96*15=29.45 million.

29.45 million years of life saved. At the expense of 56 million years of life lost for today's school children. Thus, it would seem that the better policy would be to keep schools open.

Now I'm aware that I am making a huge amount of assumptions in this analysis. But the overall point of this post is to show that it's possible that school closures will do more harm than good. Nobody can perfectly predict the future, and there is a lot of data that is missing that I would need in order to make a more accurate analysis. If you think my analysis is missing some important details please let me know. I would love to hear some other opinions.

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