Costs and Benefits of School Closings Differ by ZIP Code

Torri Donley

(Bloomberg Opinion) — As communities prepare to reopen their public schools, many parents, students and teachers alike worry that it’s still too soon. But the evidence tells us that the longer that physical classrooms stay closed, the less students will learn, and the gap between haves and have-nots will grow […]

(Bloomberg Opinion) — As communities prepare to reopen their public schools, many parents, students and teachers alike worry that it’s still too soon. But the evidence tells us that the longer that physical classrooms stay closed, the less students will learn, and the gap between haves and have-nots will grow even wider.    

The governor of Florida is being sued by the teachers’ union on the ground that the order to reopen schools violates the state constitution’s guarantee of a “safe” education. In my own state of Connecticut, the teachers union has called for schools to remain shut until funding is available for weekly Covid-19 testing for all students, teachers and staff. Although the safety concerns are understandable, they’re not the whole of the story. 

“Safe” is a relative, not an absolute, term. It’s always a measure of risks versus benefits, as when we climb confidently into our car despite the possibility of an accident. I don’t want to argue that reopening in the midst of a pandemic carries no risks; I want to argue that we’re not spending enough time weighing those risks against potential benefits. We might still decide that schools aren’t ready to reopen, but only when we have considered both sides can we make a reasoned decision.

Let’s start with the bottom line: The shift to remote learning has made education worse. Although we don’t yet have good results for the chaotic semester just past, a May report from the Brookings Institution, based on previous research, warned of a likely performance decline in grades K-12. Student progress in mathematics appears to have slowed significantly, particularly for children from lower-income ZIP codes. And a new paper from Carycruz Bueno, a researcher at Brown, finds a significant reduction in achievement test scores for middle-school students who attend classes online.   

A June report from McKinsey offers a dire prediction if schools do not reopen until January of 2021:

We estimate that students who remain enrolled could lose three to four months of learning if they receive average remote instruction, seven to 11 months with lower-quality remote instruction, and 12 to 14 months if they do not receive any instruction at all.

If schools remain closed for the entirety of the 2020-2021 academic year, the consulting firm’s forecast is even more baleful.

None of this should be surprising. Overall, students seem to learn more when the schools are open than when they’re not. It’s long been understood that unanticipated school closures tend to reduce scores on standardized tests. The more missed days, the greater the effect. The link seems particularly pronounced for students in lower grades.

It’s no response to say that coronavirus took educators by surprise. Experts have been warning schools for years to prepare for the possibility of online teaching should a pandemic strike. Yet levels of preparation turn out to have varied, largely along the lines one would have guessed.

Some schools have managed to keep teaching: According to a recent survey of parents by Education Next, schools attended by 74% of students “continued to introduce new content” during the spring shutdown. But that means schools attended by one out of four didn’t. Unsurprisingly, the institutions most likely to keep teaching new material were private schools, followed by charter schools and schools in higher-income areas. Perhaps most tellingly, parents whose children attended charter schools or private schools were far more likely than public school parents to report high levels of satisfaction with the schools’ response.

And there are more reasons for concern. We’ve long known that the home environment is among the strongest predictors of educational achievement, but when schools are closed it seems to matter more than ever. To take a single example, a July working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that during the shutdown, the intensity of online searches for resources to teach children has been far greater in higher-income areas than in lower-income areas. In short, with each day the schools remain closed, shuttered, the educational gap between haves and have-nots is widening. 

Not that we couldn’t have guessed this. Some did. That June report from McKinsey argued explicitly that a lengthy shutdown was likely to exacerbate the learning gaps between haves and have-nots. Other observers, too, predicted this problem back at the start of the shutdown, but not much has been done about it.

To take only the most obvious example, about 6% of school-age children lack internet access at home, according to the U.S. Department of Education. (The number who lack broadband access is likely greater.)  Home internet access is correlated with household income, and is much more likely for Asian American and White children than for Black, Hispanic, or American Indian kids.

Several teachers’ unions, sensitive to this difficulty, have argued that schools shouldn’t reopen until more has been done to equalize access. But this approach has the solution backwards. As long as the schools are closed, kids who live in enriched environments will continue to be enriched. One argument for public schools is that it’s a place where we can do at least a little bit to ease life’s other inequalities. Keeping the schools closed will do the opposite.

Now, again, let me be clear: In all of this, I am not insisting that the schools must reopen in the fall. Nor am I arguing that the unions who consider the classrooms not yet safe enough are wrong. My point, rather, is that before we choose our course of action, we should take also into account the costs imposed by keeping the schools closed; and that we bear in mind that those costs do not fall equally upon the nation’s children.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”

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