In-person K-12 learning is essential to a well functioning economy

Throughout the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, one issue of importance has been about school closures. For one, research has documented how harmful school closures are to the wellbeing of children. Additionally, school closures increase gaps in learning leading to a reduction in future and lifetime income.

One aspect, however, that has received little attention is how central in person k-12 learning is to our economy. According to a recent NBER paper, when it comes to discussions on “the extent to which k-12 schools should remain open”, “there has been little mention of the immediate importance of K-12 schooling for the rest of the economy.”

Generally, k-12 is an important fixture in our economy. Apart from the fraction of GDP produced by k-12 schooling, education has another important role to play. According to the authors, K-12 schooling,

frees up daytime hours during the work week of parents with school-aged children, allowing them to supply labour to economic activity and earn income. Without in-person K-12 schooling, it would be hard to imagine the modern work environment functioning as it does.

Consequently, “eliminating in-person schooling reduces the amount of labor time parents of school-aged children have available to work, and therefore reduces income to those workers and the economy as a whole”. We can see this by how parents have been affected by school closures during the pandemic.

After schools closed, parents took time off of work or worked from home. This, for most parents, meant fewer hours available for work, reduced productivity, or both. In essence, k-12 education is, therefore, “essential to the network of economic activity”.

School closures and job losses

School closures, coupled with lack of childcare, have been in fact one of the big causes of parents leaving the workforce. In an interview with NPR, Cecilia Rouse, Joe Biden’s pick to head the Council of Economic Advisors, understated how crucial reopening schools is to working women, a point that we at the Center have stressed:

Well, I think one of the most important ways that we get women back into the labor market is to get our schools reopened. I think it’s been underappreciated the role that schools have played in taking care of our children and allowing women to leave the household and to participate in the labor force outside of the home. And so I think the first job, again, coming back to the pandemic is to reopen our schools safely so that our kids can be back in school and so that women can once again participate in the labor market.

Yet despite this, Minnesota’s plan for reopening schools remains fragmented and unhelpful. For instance, elementary schools can reopen only if they follow specific safety standards. However, middle and high schools are still subject to the old “Safe Learning” plan.  That means schools have to base their reopening decisions on the rate of spread of the virus. This is, however, a measure that could keep students out of school.