Learning losses prompted by COVID-19 could lead to decreased lifetime earnings for the children impacted and could exacerbate our country’s shamefully stark income inequality, according to a recently published Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) paper. The authors, economists Eric A. Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann, share a “sobering” analysis of the cost of COVID-19 school closures, in terms of the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the individual earning potential of children who have been kept out of school due to the pandemic. They report that “students in grades 1-12 affected by the closures might expect some 3 percent lower income over their entire lifetimes,” and that “disadvantaged” students are likely to be even harder hit: “students whose families are less able to support out-of-school learning will face larger learning losses than their more advantaged peers, which in turn will translate into deeper losses of lifetime earnings.”
Our country already has staggering income inequality, both between the rich and poor and between different racial and ethnic groups. In our State of America’s Children 2020 report, we highlighted that the gap between the incomes of the richest and poorest American households grew to its widest point in 50 years in 2018. That same year, the median Black household only earned 59 cents and the median Hispanic household earned 73 cents for every $1 earned by the median white household. Lower-income households and Black and Hispanic households are less likely to have internet-connected devices that children can use for virtual schooling than their higher-income and white peers. That means that these children would fall into the category that Hanushek and Woessmann categorize as “disadvantaged,” because they are likely to have felt learning losses more acutely than students who were able to engage in some level of continued education after their schools closed their doors. The idea that having been excluded from education for months—through no fault of their own—will result in these children having lower earning potential for their entire lives is incredibly alarming and should spur us all to action.
The lasting economic impacts will be seen at a national level, too, as these students grow up and contribute fewer lifetime earnings to the country’s economy. Hanushek and Woessmann report that “the already accrued learning losses are expected to amount to $14.2 trillion in current dollars (present value).” They add that the prognosis will continue to worsen as schools remain closed further into this fall, ramping up the magnitude of learning loss across the country.
So what can we do about it? The authors note that just returning to school will not allow children to avoid these serious losses or recoup national economic loss. Schools will need to actually meet the increased need and make up the losses that accumulated while children were missing instruction, and that is no small feat. They recommend strategies like matching the skills of the teaching force to the new reality (i.e. more expertise in video instruction) and pivoting to individualized instruction. Equipping schools to pursue these strategies or any of the others being proposed to make up for lost instruction, especially for our country’s most vulnerable students, will require significant investment—because our schools were already chronically underfunded, even before the pandemic hit. Schools across the country are looking at serious budget cuts, let alone having room in their budgets to address increased student needs and widening disparities. To put it bluntly, “the losses already suffered demand more than the best of currently considered re-opening approaches.”
Congress and the U.S. Department of Education have an obligation to take bold action to ensure schools can meet children’s needs. Instead, Senate Republicans introduced a woefully inadequate bill this week that would have conditioned education aid on opening schools in dangerous conditions and funneled money away from public schools and toward private schools, while the Department of Education is spending its valuable time “cracking down” on Department employee book clubs that include discussions of white privilege. We have called on Congress to ensure that K-12 schools have what they need to support children and families by providing at least $200 billion in additional K-12 funding, with special attention paid to programs and services that support marginalized students, and that this funding be made available regardless of schools’ timelines for reopening. We will continue to sound the alarm and reiterate those demands until the federal government makes our country’s students a priority.