Did Closing Schools Enhance Health?

7 min read
fairly difficult
During the fall term, the fatality risk of teaching was comparable to that of driving 18 miles alone in a car.
A father and son pass a sign announcing that the school is closed for the academic year due to the coronavirus in Falls Church, Va., March 25, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Many U.S. school buildings, especially those operated by the public sector, were closed last year. Academic progress, child development, and psychological health suffered from e-learning. Was there an offsetting health benefit for students, teachers, or their families? If so, of what magnitude?

Economics is essential for answering these questions. Human behavior affects disease transmission and responds to incentives and economic organization. Economists have long analyzed and prepared standardized measures of occupational risks, of which contracting COVID-19 at school is a novel instance. Occupational-risk analysis particularly emphasizes the time dimension of infection risks and thereby their relationship with other health risks experienced in more familiar occupational and consumer settings.



This approach readily shows that the fatality risk to self and living partners, which may include an elderly person, for one day taught in person by the average nonelderly K–12 teacher during the fall 2020 term was comparable to the risk of driving 18 miles alone in a car.

At first glance, one might expect in-person classes to be superspreader events. We know that in-person school involves a large number of personal contacts, which is the way that infectious respiratory diseases can spread. In-person schooling appears to have contributed to the spread of previous seasonal flus.

However, economic incentives during COVID-19 are different from those during a typical flu season because COVID-19 is a more harmful disease. The prevention efforts used during COVID-19 should not be, and were not, the same during fall 2020 as they were in previous flu seasons. In schools, the fall 2020 precautions usually included face masks, restricted school entry, extra spacing, cohort…
Casey B. Mulligan
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