A Teacher’s Argument for School Re-Opening
- Do school closures prevent community infections?
- Are the benefits of school closures greater than the costs?
As a rule, it’s best to go straight to the research, and in this case the research is mixed.
A paper from JAMA analyzing Spring school closures found that the current closure policies may be able to account for “128.7 fewer cases per 100 000 population over 26 days and 1.5 fewer deaths per 100,000 population over 16 days.” Further research from the Lancet estimates “that school closures alone would prevent only 2–4% of deaths.” Another editorial from JAMA does a better job than I could at breaking down the relevant risks given our most current research. To sum it up, though, most of the research is pointing towards the conclusion that school closures can moderately prevent further community infection. The hard work comes when we start to really consider the tradeoffs.
We don’t get to just close school and expect that we can only reap the benefits of lesser infection, we also have to deal with the negative consequences that this decision will have on our students. From a purely economic and academic perspective, the loss of instruction time will handicap every student at every level. And economically, “closing all schools in the U.S. for four weeks could costs between $10 and $47 billion dollars [in lost productivity] and [may lead] to a reduction of 6% to 19% in key health care personnel.”
More importantly, public health researchers have estimated that “missed instruction during 2020 could be associated with an estimated 5.53 million years of life lost” for American children due to education’s positive impact on life expectancy and mental health.
School closures cripple our economy, limit the effectiveness of our health workers, limit the academic potential of our students, and have severe long-term effects on student health.
Our work now is to weigh the costs of school closure against the benefits. Let’s take the previously researched estimate that school closures prevent about 1.5 deaths per 100,000 people for every 16 days of closures. Based on these estimates we can roughly calculate that every month of school closures could lead to about 10,000 lives saved in the US, or about 100,000 lives for the typical school year. If we assume that the average age of a COVID death is around 70 (about the mean of US COVID mortalities), we can very roughly estimate that each COVID death leads to an average loss of 8 years of life based on the current US life expectancy of 78. This leads us to the ballpark estimate that school closures can save about 100,000 people and about 800,000 years of life (Note though that this is likely to be an overestimate of the number of lives saved when compared to the current modelling estimates that school closures may only prevent about 2–4% of COVID deaths).
Now I won’t pretend like these estimates are publishable or even completely true! There are other things to consider and no one study could possibly account for all factors!
They are estimates that come with very big error bars, the point of this exercise is just to show you that this research points towards the possibility that school closures can save 800,000 years of life while causing the loss of 5.53 million years of life across roughly the same time scale. In other words, every 1 year of life saved by school closures could mean 7 years lost. This is not a straightforward win for school closure.
As a teacher, my job is to care about the long-term success of my students. That’s it. Given the extreme consequences of school closures to our students, I believe that we should be much less in favor of school closures, and much more eager to build effective systems to bring our students back into the classroom.
That may mean wearing 2 masks, rubber gloves, and a face shield for 8 hours a day. That may mean basically taking on the same risks that our healthcare workers are. That may mean having to be incredibly strict about ensuring the safety of our students — ensuring proper mask use at every moment of the day for every person that comes close to our students.
This situation will likely be awful for a very long time. But it’s our job.