February 15, 2021

Did closing schools save lives or cost lives? The debate continues…

Amin Moshrefi on Unsplash

In November, I reported for NPR on a scientific paper that estimated millions of years of life could be lost due to prolonged school closures in the U.S. — far more, in fact, than might be lost by keeping schools open. The paper has since been corrected and critiqued. The central question it tried to answer remains.

The paper’s author, Dimitri Christakis is a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital, editor of the American Medical Association journal JAMA Pediatrics and an outspoken advocate of opening schools when possible to protect children’s well-being. He told NPR recently that he wrote the paper to flesh out his argument:

“The debate has been around kids going to school or life lost. When it’s framed that way it’s a no-brainer. But we’re also killing people by not putting kids in school. It’s just that they’re not dying today, so we’re not taking them into account.”

Killing people? Because of several months of Zoom school? How could that be?

Well, there is a well-documented association between educational attainment and life expectancy. By young adulthood, according to one study, Americans with a college degree can look forward to a decade more of life compared to people who don’t have a high school diploma. This gap tends to be larger in more unequal societies, like the United States. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports the average gap across rich countries is six years.

But could temporary school closures really hurt a significant number of young Americans’ chances of graduating college? It’s also been documented that even short interruptions in education — especially when they’re combined with social and political upheaval, such as we’re currently experiencing — can knock some students off track to their degrees. It can take years to recover from just a few months of lost learning, and some never do. Already, NPR has reported college enrollment plummeted this past fall. That’s a reversal of what has happened in previous recessions.

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