Research shows that schools don't significantly spread COVID-19, and that closures are harming students, particularly low-income, Black, and brown students.

COVID-19 School Closures Put Students' Futures at Risk


  • Debates over school shutdowns drive another partisan wedge in education policy.
  • While remote learning is safer, evidence points to detrimental effects on students.
  • Underserved students risk suffering a massive learning loss, with reverberating effects.

Children may be less affected by the coronavirus than any other age group, but they still face serious health risks due to pandemic-driven school closures. Away from schools, kids are more likely to experience abuse, violence, and neglect. They're also more likely to lag behind academically, threatening today's K-12 students' college and career outlooks.

A recent UNICEF report states, "Disruptions to essential services such as education, healthcare, nutrition, and child protection interventions are harming children." And this couldn't be clearer.

Evidence highlights the negative effects school closures have had on students, with many falling through the cracks, failing to engage in their online courses, and even dropping out. Fewer students plan to attend college this and next year as well.

Most school closures' academic collateral damage will be heaped on low-income, Black, and Hispanic students, according to research conducted by McKinsey & Company. Not only do these students face more preexisting challenges to receiving education, but they are also more likely to be personally and financially impacted by COVID-19.

“Relative to their risk of contracting disease, children and adolescents have been disproportionately affected by lockdown measures.”

Meanwhile, school reopening plans are caught in political battles between lawmakers, school districts, and teachers' unions. Around half of U.S. school districts — including three-fourths of the largest 100 school districts — are currently operating entirely online.

School leaders concerned about fostering viral resurgences say remote learning is safer. But critics of online learning — which include researchers with UNICEF and the National Education Association — counter that learning loss is the more glaring risk.

School interruptions, ad hoc remote-learning strategies (some more effective and accessible than others), lowered grading standards, and chronic absenteeism have all disrupted students' learning gains this year.

And with 28 states yet to mandate remote learning for K-12 students, many young learners risk not receiving any formal instruction at all until schools return to in-person teaching.

School Closures Stymie Students' College Plans

Despite facing many barriers, a steadily growing share of students of color have graduated from high school, made the leap to college, and earned their degrees in recent decades. But the COVID-19 pandemic has halted progress on closing the educational gap, now threatening to rip it wide open again.

School shutdowns and the struggling economy have pulled back Black and Hispanic students' hard-won educational gains. Students of color and their families are more likely to have lost paychecks due to COVID-19, and are also more likely to have rethought going to college.

Many students are losing the motivation to continue their education. While a college degree still holds value for many — specifically those who believe the credential will lead to higher incomes and better job prospects — it just isn't worth the expense now that classes have moved online.

School shutdowns and the struggling economy have pulled back Black and Hispanic students’ hard-won educational gains.

This year, college enrollment rates fell across the board, with Black students experiencing the sharpest downturn.

Disrupting in-person learning means disrupting the college prep and support many students rely on to succeed academically. Too many would-be first-generation college students get trapped in the admissions maize or make it through the process only to lose motivation to enroll over the summer.

More students are struggling at the high school level as well. Absenteeism has reached a new high in a number of cities, as students drop out of contact with their teachers, failing to log in for class, submit homework, and respond over email.

Under normal circumstances, students who fail to attend school for over 10 days are 36% more likely to drop out. With the pandemic, however, researchers anticipate a steep rise in high school dropout rates, which until now had been steadily declining.

Teachers and Students Divided Over Reopening Schools

This spring, school leaders moved swiftly to shutter buildings and move instruction online. Even amid evidence of children's resiliency against COVID-19, the fear that schools and students could act as transmitters kept classrooms dark. In most cases, school closures persisted at the urging of teachers' unions.

Many educators protested the idea of being sent back into the classroom this year. Rather than face the risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus, some quit or went into early retirement.

Others — citing high-risk teachers, teachers who live with high-risk family members, and teachers with kids of their own at home to care for — successfully bargained to teach remotely, teach in person just a couple of days per week, delay the start of the school year, or cut the semester short.

What's good for teachers' unions, however, might not be what's good for students. Studies show that schools play a small role in coronavirus transmission. In fact, there's no consistent association between school reopenings and community infection rates. The rates of infection within schools are actually far below those found in surrounding communities.

Teachers' unions, school districts, and local governments around the U.S. are now facing urgent calls to get students back into the classroom — but several official decisions are moving in the opposite direction.

“The many benefits of in-person schooling should be weighed against the risks posed by COVID-19 spread. … In-person learning is in the best interest of students, when compared to virtual learning.”

For example, Washington, D.C., threw out reopening plans due to opposition from teachers' unions, which included a delivery of body bags as a warning of the risks of COVID-19. New York City, per union demands, similarly reclosed its entire public school system in November.

A better path, insists Joseph Allen of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is to minimize risk. "We teach kids growth mindset, but with schools, we tend to have a closed mindset," he says.

Simple common-sense solutions, like opening windows and replacing HVAC filters, reduce the possibility of viral transmission. In other words, students' academic struggles, mental health concerns, and rising suicide risk outweigh COVID-19's threat to classrooms when basic health safety measures are followed.

President-elect Joe Biden, a longtime ally of teachers' unions who targets K-12 teachers in his education policy, supports giving $58 billion toward school districts as part of the HEROES Act. The funds could cover the ventilation and testing investments that unions say schools must make before teachers reenter the classroom.

A study conducted by the nonpartisan research group The Brookings Institution found that school reopening decisions are more strongly correlated with local political attitudes than they are with viral transmission data. Put plainly, Republicans want schools to reopen, while Democrats want schools to remain closed.

Learning Loss Equals Earning Loss

According to a recent article published by Science, school closures initially stemmed from the "reasonable expectation" that children would act as links in the viral "transmission chain." But a growing chorus of respected voices claim otherwise. Allen acknowledges the need to reopen schools, as remote learning continues to fail many students.

Income data reveals that every step up in education increases an individual's projected lifetime earnings. But the opposite is also true: The World Bank estimates that months of school closures due to COVID-19 could cut lifetime earnings for affected children by a staggering $10 trillion.

School closures also threaten to widen racial divides in educational access. Students who don't receive quality in-person instruction during their formative K-12 years — and who don't have the resources or support to get the equivalent at home — could feel the effects for the rest of their lives.

In the newly invigorated quest for diversity and equity in education, reopening schools could be the most vital step.


Feature Image: KENA BETANCUR / Contributor / AFP / Getty Images