The American public-school system is already largely segregated by race, class and outcomes, and expert say that trend is likely to get worse.
For America’s schoolchildren, their parents and their teachers, this fall will be unlike any other.
Over the past few weeks, prominent public-school systems all over the country have announced that they’ll be starting school remotely. Others have pressed forward with plans for in-person instruction amid pressure from the federal government to reopen.
It’s a weighty decision for officials with implications for students’ mental health, parents’ careers and public health and safety — particularly for teachers and others who work in schools.
President Trump has repeatedly said he wants schools to reopen. Denmark appears to have achieved this successfully, it seems, while Israel has faltered.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the past three decades, told MarketWatch in an interview on Thursday evening, “The fundamental default should be that we should try as best as we possibly can to open up the schools. But we have to remember, as a paramount consideration, the safety and the health of the children and teachers.”
Costs to the economy
We often think of school as a place where children expand their minds and learn to interact with others. That’s all true, of course, but our education system is also meant to prepare students to ultimately be productive members of our economy.
Keeping schools closed could put that mission in danger. An estimate from the Brookings Institution, a think tank, suggests that losing four months of school closures, including universities, could cost the U.S. $2.5 trillion or 12.7% of its annual gross domestic product.
The estimate is based on the assumption that each additional year of schooling bumps a student’s earning potential up 10%. Under that premise, four months of school closures will cost students $1,337 per year each, or $33,464 over a career when considering how the money would have grown over time.
It’s a rough calculation and doesn’t take into account the education students are receiving through remote learning. But it does provide some insight into the future costs to the nation from this period. The authors note that the learning lost during World War II was still impacting former students’ lives four decades later.
“You have to weigh the risks of contagion,” said Emiliana Vegas, co-director of Brookings’ Center for Universal Education and one of the authors of the analysis. “It’s a very tough decision.”
Though this period will have costs for everyone, rich and poor, it’s also likely to exacerbate the economic divide between countries and communities. Vegas and her team are working on an analysis to quantify that gap.
Their preliminary findings suggest that, while school closures will likely have a large and long-lasting impact on the earnings of future workers around the world, students from low-income countries will be affected most.
Cost to moms’ careers
The Brookings analysis doesn’t take into account the productivity parents are sacrificing as schools remain closed — either because they have to give up jobs that require them to go into work or scale back their hours to care for their children even if they are able to work remotely.
Based on what we know about how families typically handle child-care responsibilities and the preliminary data on households from this period, that burden and loss in earnings is likely to fall largely on moms.
The United Nations warned in an April report that “immediate steps are needed to ensure that COVID-19 does not reverse the gender equality progress achieved in recent decades, in particular with regard to women’s participation in the labor force.”
Pandemic-related job losses in the U.S. through May haven’t disproportionately affected women with young children. That’s in part because these women already have the lowest labor force participation rates of any group and so it would take a major event to move the needle, said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-focused think tank.
Still, this recession has disproportionately impacted women overall. Industries, like hospitality and retail, that have been hit hardest by the pandemic are dominated by women; from February through May, 11.5 million women lost their jobs, compared to 9 million men, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
But because those industries are also disproportionately young, the impact on women with children hasn’t been as large, Gould said.
That could change. “When the jobs come back you may see that mothers — parents, but particularly mothers of children whose schools are not opening — you may see them holding back from returning to the labor force because they simply can’t,” Gould said.
Evidence suggests that the months of school and camp closures have already forced women to scale back.
Between February and April 2020, women with preschool-aged children worked 1.8 fewer hours per week and those with school-aged children cut back 1.9 hours, according to a recent study from a group of sociologists at Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Melbourne, the Labor Department and the University of North Texas. Women with high-school aged children reduced their work time by 1.5 hours per week, the study found.
Men with children on the other hand, didn’t change their working habits much. Only those with high school-aged children reduced their hours by 1.2 per week, the study found. The result: the gap between the hours men and women work grew by between 20% and 50%.
Research also suggests that mothers aren’t just reducing their hours, they’re leaving their jobs to cope. Among women who said they were not working due to the pandemic, more than 16% said it was because they had to care for children not in school or daycare, according to a research brief from Syracuse University’s Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion. That’s compared to less than 5% of men.
Historically, these kinds of breaks have been costly to womens’ future earnings and careers. Women who leave the workforce face a 7% drop in earnings when they return, according to a 2018 study by PayScale, the salary data company.
“When women off-ramp, when they off-ramp for even just a short period of time to care for a family member or to care for a child, it really impacts their earnings, their long-term earnings, and their career mobility and advancement,” said C. Nicole Mason, the chief executive officer of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a think tank.
A number of historical and societal factors explain why women bear the brunt of child care responsibilities, Mason said, including that our workplace system still largely assumes the average family has a man making money and a woman taking responsibility for the home, even though that’s largely not the case.
“We see care and responsibilities of care as an individual problem for women to solve or for families to solve on their own, not as a universal problem,” she said. “It’s been left up to families to figure out, if you can’t figure out care, I guess you can’t work or I guess you have to off-ramp.”
If we don’t come up with a broader solution, fast, it could have particularly devastating consequences for women who are their family’s primary breadwinners — a group that is disproportionately Black. About 41% of moms overall are the sole or primary breadwinners for their families, according to a 2019 analysis from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. That’s true of 84% of Black mothers.
Cost to school systems
Families are reeling from officials’ decisions to keep schools physically closed in the fall, with those who can afford it scrambling for ways to provide their children with some in-person instruction and socialization. But opening schools safely is costly, and without some sort of subsidy many school districts likely won’t be able to afford to do it.
Creating the necessary safety precautions — like providing surgical masks for teachers, setting up handwashing stations and reorganizing classrooms to provide for social distancing — would cost $1.8 million for a school district with eight buildings and about 3,200 students, according to a July report from the National Academy of Sciences. The Los Angeles Unified School District, which is the second largest in the country and will be going remote this fall, serves more than 600,000 students in over 1,000 schools.
The Council of Chief State School Officers, an organization representing officials who head public elementary and secondary school departments, estimated in June that schools would need between $158.1 billion and $244.6 billion in additional funding to open safely.
Congress is currently negotiating another coronavirus relief package that could offer some funding for schools. Democrats say they will block any plan that conditions the funding on schools physically re-opening.
The funds required to open schools fall into several buckets, said Emma García, an economist at EPI who specializes in the economics of education and education policy.
School systems need to be able to cover the costs of the equipment to keep students and teachers safe. In addition, complying with social distancing may require smaller classes, which would also require more teachers. What’s more, the school closures we’ve already seen will mean that many students will come back seeking more support, academically, emotionally or in other ways, which will likely also necessitate more staff.
But school systems are already squeezed for funds. To get to the same level of service students experienced last fall could mean that public schools face a budget gap as wide as $93.5 billion for the next year, according to an analysis by the American Federation of Teachers of data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. AFT estimates that at least another $116.5 billion will be necessary to equip schools to operate in a pandemic environment.
Without some federal help, those funds will be hard to come by. The pandemic will cost states $555 billion over fiscal years 2020 to 2022, according to an estimate by CBPP. States were already struggling to recover from the last recession; in 2015, 29 states were still providing less funding per student to their public schools than in 2008, CBPP found.
“We are entering this school year in this new normal, much further behind then we were entering the prior recession and that’s also not good news,” García said.
Costs to equity
The American public-school system is already largely segregated by race, class and outcomes, and that trend is likely only to get worse as a result of pandemic disruptions to schooling.
Students overall are likely to suffer from the school closures that already took place this spring. They’ll start in the fall with 63% to 68% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year, according to an analysis by NWEA, an academic assessment organization. They’ll come back with 37% to 50% of the typical learning gains in math, the analysis found.
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NWEA’s estimate is based on historical data from other schooling pauses, like those that take place during natural disasters and as a result of chronic absenteeism. It doesn’t take into account the remote education schools are offering, so the estimates are likely to be a lower bound, said Beth Tarasawa, the executive vice president of research at NWEA and one of the authors of the study.
But what we know historically about these pauses and others, like summer slide — or the phenomenon of students losing some of what they’ve learned during the year when school is off — is that they disproportionately impact low-income students.
An average group of fifth graders return to the classroom at a variety of grade levels; 32.8% may be learning at third grade level, while 4.4% may be up to seventh grade, according to NWEA.
“That variation is likely to be expanded and spread,” as a result of this pandemic period, Tarasawa said.
Some students may have had access to devices, strong internet connections and parents with the time and resources to help them with school during the spring and summer.
While at Boys & Girls Clubs across the country, staffers were looking for ways to provide devices, strong internet connection and tutoring call-in hours to the low-income families they serve, said Lesa Sexton, Director of Education, Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
And that’s just the gap in the educational experience. The economic and health impacts of COVID-19 have disproportionately affected low-income communities and communities of color, experiences that will certainly impact students’ ability to be successful in school.
Written by Jillian Berman for Market Watch ~ July 24, 2020