US school re-opening decisions in a pandemic environment are complex – data can help
The importance of getting children back in schools is clear. Discontinuity in children's education is linked to worse school performance and higher eventual dropout rates. Lack of social interaction with peers presents mental health challenges; children sequestered in homes with parents who are abusive or contending with mental illness or addiction are at increased risk of physical harm; and millions of children rely on school-provided meals to avoid hunger. In trying to preserve continuity of education, many children and families have struggled with the online education that has replaced in-person instruction. As the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) points out: "without careful implementation, virtual learning alone runs the risk of exacerbating disparities in access to high quality education across different demographic groups and communities."
In addition to considerations about students, many parents need the childcare provided by schools to return to work. Although 13 million parents have teleworkable jobs, those with younger children or children with special needs likely will be unable to work as intensely with schools not operating in-person as they would if their children were at school. Parents without teleworkable jobs who have children needing supervision face even greater work challenges. Using data and information from the American Community Survey and revisions of ideas expressed in a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper, we find that almost 42 million U.S. workers are (or were at the start of the pandemic) employed in jobs that cannot be carried out via telework and have children at home; over 14 million of these were single parents, with the percentage of Black single parents affected nearly twice that of non-Hispanic White single parents. While not all of these parents will need school-provided childcare to return to work (for example, if their children are old enough to stay by themselves or friends and family will provide childcare), these data shed light on the potential job market impacts of school closures.
A popular position on COVID-19 policy advocates for young, healthy people to carry on as usual while those at high risk for COVID-19 complications self-quarantine. Within the context of the debate on how and when to re-open schools, unfortunately, a significant portion of the personnel needed to successfully re-open schools are at high risk for COVID-19 complications. School bus drivers, teachers, school cafeteria workers, education administrators, school counselors, janitors, and teacher assistants are all occupations at very high risk (i.e. in the highest risk quartile of occupations) of COVID exposure in our analysis of O*Net's data regarding the contact with others, proximity to these contacts, and exposure to disease ratings for each occupation.
Using data from the American Community Survey and National Health Interview Survey, we estimate that more than 1.5 million teachers and 2.3 million (or 27% of) faculty and staff who are likely to have contact with students are at high risk of COVID-19 complications, while 30% of non-Hispanic Black and 33% of Hispanic workers likely to have contact with students are at high risk. Support staff are at highest risk. Roughly half of all transportation workers (mainly comprised of bus drivers, whose median age is over 50), 39% of food service workers, and 36% of janitorial and groundskeeping staff are at high risk of complication from COVID-19. These risks are not spread evenly - 61% of Hispanic transportation workers and 51% of Hispanic food service workers are at high risk. We define high-risk as having 2 or more of the following risk factors: age >60, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, stroke, heart attack, asthma and history of cancer. Because the risk factors on which we could obtain data are limited, we likely underestimate the percentage of school personnel at high risk of COVID-19 complications. Additionally, many low- or medium-risk education workers live with and/or care for high-risk people, which further increases the overall health risks of in-person instruction. Finally, the grandparents or other close family members of school-aged children who are at elevated risk for COVID complications are also put in harm's way when in-person instruction resumes - a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that "about 6% of people age 65 or older, or about 3.3 million people, lived in a household with a school-age child (ages 5-18) in 2018."
As the NAS notes, decisions regarding the reopening of schools should include careful consideration of many important factors and will vary by the characteristics and circumstances of schools and school districts and the communities they serve. IHS Markit is compiling data like those discussed above, at the state and local levels, through our Resilience Dashboard and other databases, on health and economic factors of interest to decision makers in formulating their policies regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and other potential disruptions.
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