For young students, the risk of dying from Covid is lower than the risk of dying from the flu, and researchers have repeatedly found that children do not easily transmit the virus to adults.
For the lockdown-weary, a brief window of hope opened after the presidential election. With Joe Biden victorious, Democratic politicians and their media allies lost their incentive to weaken Donald Trump’s economy and stoke Covid-19 panic among voters. And with Republicans well-positioned to retain the Senate, governors and mayors in blue states could no longer count on a windfall from a Democratic Congress to rescue them from the consequences of their lockdowns. Finally, cooler heads could prevail—right?
So much for that fantasy. Instead of reconsidering their policies, local officials are restricting more businesses and closing more schools, as New York City has just done. Journalists continue treating Covid deaths as the only ones that matter, while ignoring the mounting medical and social toll from lockdowns. Promising more restrictions, Biden has created an advisory board comprised of individuals who favor stricter lockdowns and foresee restrictions continuing until late next year, even if a Covid vaccine is quickly approved.
Biden and other leaders claim to be following “the science,” but that obviously doesn’t include the research showing the high costs and low benefits of lockdowns and school closures. Closing schools was a dubious move in the spring, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that it would likely do little to stem the pandemic (and noted that school closings in other countries had failed to make a discernible impact). Today it makes even less sense in light of the accumulated evidence.
For young students, the risk of dying from Covid is lower than the risk of dying from the flu, and researchers have repeatedly found that children do not easily transmit the virus to adults. The clearest evidence comes from Sweden, which did not close elementary schools or junior high schools during the spring Covid wave, and which did not reduce class sizes or encourage students and teachers to wear face masks.
The chief effect of school closures is to hurt students. In St. Paul, Minnesota, where schools have been mostly closed since March, 40 percent of the students are failing this quarter—double the normal rate. In the Dallas public schools, which closed in March and reopened late this fall, recent tests revealed that half of the students have regressed in mathematics since last year, and that’s probably typical of the “learning loss” that will have long-lasting effects on students around the world. Economists at the World Bank estimate that the spring closures will ultimately reduce the affected students’ lifetime earnings by 5 percent—a loss totaling $10 trillion worldwide. Extrapolating from the well-established effects of education and income on life expectancy, another team of researchers calculates that the springtime school closures in the United States will shorten students’ lives by a cumulative total of more than five million years—more years of life than were lost to the pandemic in the spring.
But those considerations don’t carry much weight with teachers’ unions—and the politicians who depend on them for reelection. Governors and mayors kept many schools closed or only partially open at the start of the fall, and this month they’ve been ordering further shutdowns. Since New York City reopened its schools in September, there has been a minuscule rate of infection among students and staff members—just two cases per thousand. But Mayor Bill de Blasio is so in thrall to the teachers’ union that he closed schools this week even though the city’s positivity test rate is well below the threshold used for closing schools in the rest of the state.
The school closures are disproportionately harming African-American and Hispanic students, and other lockdown measures fall hardest on low-income workers who can’t do their jobs from home, as was repeatedly pointed out by Trump and the researchers he consulted, like Scott Atlas of the Hoover Institution. Atlas, whose calculations show that the social costs of lockdowns exceed the benefits, calls them “a luxury of the rich.” But despite Biden’s professed concern for reducing inequality, he has not urged schools and businesses to remain open. While he says that he will not impose a national lockdown, his advisory board is dominated by public-health professionals eager to impose still more costly restrictions.