Follow De Blasio’s Lead and Keep Schools Open During Omicron
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Bravo, Bill de Blasio. The New York City mayor announced on Tuesday that the city’s public schools will stop quarantining entire classrooms when one or more students test positive for Covid. Instead, the city will increase its use of testing to allow asymptomatic students who test negative to stay in school.
As omicron cases surge around the nation, New York’s policy bucks what could still turn into a wave of school closures and classroom quarantines. A district in a Maryland suburb of Washington D.C. decided to go virtual until mid-January in light of an uptick in Covid infections. Some local politicians are suggesting there might be a need for schools to return to virtual learning. As Covid case counts continue to grow, so will pressure on districts across the nation to keep kids at home.
That would be a disaster for children. Even if counts of new omicron cases break pandemic records, students should remain in classrooms if they test negative after an exposure.
In fact, schools should go further. If rapid tests aren’t available immediately, then asymptomatic children should remain in school, even if another student in their classroom tests positive. Their symptoms can be more closely monitored, as access to tests becomes available. And kids who test positive should be let back in after they are no longer symptomatic and test negative two days in a row, rather than being required to stay at home for a specified number of days.
After 21 months, remote learning has proved to be a massive failure. Its consequences have been well documented and widely discussed: learning loss, developmental setbacks, mental health issues, food insecurity and even an increase in the severity of child abuse. Some of these problems will affect students’ lives for decades.
Meanwhile, vaccines are available for older children. Local officials should be able to decide whether to mandate them, free of interference from their state capitol. Covid does not generally present a serious health risk for kids — in fact, preliminary evidence suggests that omicron appears to be causing milder sickness than the delta variant — but parents who are concerned about their children catching Covid are free to keep them at home.
Yes, there are risks. But consider some of the long-term economic consequences of remote learning. Schooling builds skills, which in turn increase wages and earnings. Learning loss will reduce the lifetime earnings of today’s remote learners by tens of thousands of dollars.
For some students, the losses will be even greater. During the pandemic there was an increase in the number of high school dropouts and a decrease in the share of high school seniors who went on for postsecondary education.
Students from higher-income families might be able to catch up from nearly two years of intermittent in-person school, but low-income children will find that much more difficult. This will widen educational disparities today and economic disparities in the future.
The future economy will suffer because today’s children aren’t learning as much as they should. In addition, the current labor shortage will be exacerbated if schools move to remote learning or if entire classrooms continue to be quarantined when just one or two students in the room test positive.
Uncertainty about whether kids will physically be in school means that many parents can only work sporadically. Some have chosen to stay out of the labor force altogether until classrooms are open consistently. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau report that over 5 million people were not working in early December because they were caring for children who weren’t in school or day care.
For parents who want to work, this situation is hurting their career progression and reducing their earnings. Employers, and the overall economy, are missing out on their contributions.
With so many workers on the sidelines, employers are having to raise workers’ pay rapidly in order to attract and retain employees, contributing to a steep rise in nominal wage inflation. Average wages are growing at a 5% annual rate. In the leisure and hospitality sector, they are growing at a 12% annual rate.
These costs are being passed along to consumers. Last month, consumer prices rose faster than at any time in the past four decades. This is eroding the purchasing power of nominal wage gains and causing substantial stress for families. It also risks causing a broader economic slowdown, or possibly a recession.
It is no longer the spring of 2020. At this point, developing a severe case of the virus is essentially a choice because Covid vaccines are widely available and very effective. Therapeutics are increasingly available as well, further reducing the risk of severe disease. Perhaps as a result, Americans are learning to live with the virus, traveling in large numbers for the holidays and even packing themselves into movie theaters to see the latest “Spider-Man” film.
If theaters remain open in the face of surging omicron cases, so should classrooms. At this point in the pandemic, anything other than in-person learning for children would be indefensible.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Michael R. Strain is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is director of economic policy studies and Arthur F. Burns Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of “The American Dream Is Not Dead: (But Populism Could Kill It).”
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