Lost Pandemic Learning Opportunities Could Cost Kids 3 Percent in Income Over Their Lifetimes

A new report suggests that school closures due to the coronavirus could have a negative impact on students' future career opportunities—with low-income and disadvantaged children at the most risk.

A new report out of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) looked at the long-term effects of school closures due to COVID-19 and found that the subsequent missed learning days that followed could mean a $15.3 trillion loss for the U.S. economy—and a 3 percent lower income for affected students down the line.

"Nobody is talking about schools resuming completely to normal this fall, but the economic problems caused by the pandemic would not be solved even if they did," report authors Eric A. Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann wrote for The Hill. "In an analysis that we authored and that was discussed last weekend by education ministers of the G-20, we find the cohort of K-12 students hit by the spring closures has been seriously harmed and already faces a loss of lifetime income of 3 percent or more. The nation also faces a bleaker future."

students doing schoolwork on desk
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In short, learning loss due to the coronavirus—meaning time out of school and adjusting to remote learning—could very well lead to a hit to the economy. According to a May OECD and Harvard survey, between 10 and 60 days of school were lost by students globally, with one-third to over a half year of learning loss in the U.S. alone. In fact, 38 percent of students spent two hours on school daily and 74 percent of kids spent no more than four hours. On the other hand, time spent on screens—aka TV and computer games—was up by 5.2 hours.

Unfortunately, this COVID-19 slide—or the impact missing school will have on student achievement—is not a huge surprise. Research shows that some setbacks can be expected over the summer when kids are out of school, so of course the same could happen with this huge shift in education we're seeing now due to the pandemic.

"A central component of the economic development policies of most countries has been investment in the human capital of society," the OECD report said. "Individuals with more skills are more productive and more adaptable to technological changes in their economies. Nations with more skilled populations grow faster. In many countries, the reactions to the pandemic have, however, threatened the long-run future of the current cohort of students, and the harm to them from recent events can ripple through the world’s economies in ways that will be felt far into the future."

While teachers and parents quickly adjusted to make remote learning work as best as possible, the already existing educational achievement gap—where racial and ethnic minorities usually fall behind and have less opportunities—only became more prevalent. McKinsey data points to Black, Hispanic, and low-income students facing the biggest learning losses due to a lack of resources, an absence of parental supervision, or an environment that does not promote learning. Research shows that only 60 to 70 percent of Black and Hispanic students are logging on for school regularly.

"The economic losses will be more deeply felt by disadvantaged students," the OECD report said. "All indications are that 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."

The answer? "The already-booked learning losses will go away only if the schools get better than they were before," Hanushek and Woessmann said. "That is not impossible. Research points a way through the COVID thicket, a way that capitalizes on the pandemic-induced alterations in the traditional school." So what does that mean, exactly? According to the authors, there has to be an improvement to remote learning—that does have its advantages, like allowing students to learn outside of typical school time—and it will be on educators to assess where students are at and move toward more individualized education plans—where each student works on their own goals.

Easier said than done—and teachers will have to go above and beyond yet again.

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