Reopening Schools Is As Much About Economics As It Is About Education
Schools are key to strategies to end the coronavirus lockdown — but reopening them is just as much an economic decision as an educational one. And the debate over when the students should go back to the classroom highlights the often unacknowledged truth that schools are as much about childcare as they are about education. As governments around the world grapple with how to come out of lockdown, schools are at the forefront of their decision-making.
While Denmark became the first country in Europe to reopen schools last month, and France and the Netherlands due to follow suit later this month, schools in the U.S. and the U.K. remain firmly closed to all but a handful of students. U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson — back at the helm after his own brush with Covid-19 — announced yesterday that the government would set out a ‘comprehensive’ plan on reopening schools next week, as a pivotal step to getting the economy moving. The expectation is that at least some children will return to school at the beginning of June — immediately following a week’s holiday in the U.K. — although it may be July or even September before all students go back.
The move comes amid concern that students are missing out on education, with the switch to remote learning expected to further widen the gap between rich and poor students. In response, a former chief inspector of schools in England warned that teachers may have to work weekends and evenings to help students catch up, or even that students may have to repeat the school year. But while all these ideas should be non-starters, it is clear that economic considerations weigh as heavily as educational ones.
For although students are missing out, it is not their loss of education that is the key driver behind when they return to the classroom. The reality is, until children go back to school, parents will have to remain at home looking after them, and it will be impossible to fully restart the economy. And amid predictions of a global recession — with the U.S. economy shrinking at its fastest rate since the financial crisis of 2008 — the economic imperative trumps even the impact on education.
This is not to downplay the educational loss experienced by millions of students. But without the kind of catch-up program that is both impractical and politically impossible, at some point we will have to accept that a whole generation will have gaps in their learning. While this will be unfortunate for them, to say the least, the fact it will be shared by students around the globe does at least sweeten the pill.
Economic considerations also trump health concerns. While many teachers are understandably concerned about the health risks of a return to normality, it is not primarily health considerations that are going to determine when schools reopen. Earlier this week, England’s education secretary Gavin Williamson suggested that reopening would be a phased affair, with only particular year groups — perhaps those closest to important exams — admitted at first, with others to follow later. But even with a third of students back in school, it is going to be impossible to maintain the kind of social distancing sufficient to substantially reduce the risk.
Schools do not have enough classrooms and young children do not have enough idea of personal space to make this a possibility. And with a vaccine possibly 12 months away — at least on the scale required — waiting until it is safe means both allowing only a partial unlocking of the economy and writing off the next academic year in its entirety. Parents, too, are anxious about sending their children back. Although many are struggling with balancing homeschooling with working from home, often on reduced wages, on the whole they do not seem to be the ones agitating for schools to reopen. It was noticeable that even before schools officially closed in England, many school leaders were reporting substantially reduced attendance as parents kept their children away.
In all likelihood, if schools do reopen in early June, some parents will still keep their children at home, perhaps waiting to see if it leads to another spike in cases. But the reality is that while none of the options on the table are optimal, the economic damage caused by keeping schools closed will be at least as important in deciding when to reopen them as the educational damage suffered by their students.