Relitigating the Pandemic: School Closings and Vaccine Sharing

March 26, 2024

There is a steady drumbeat from people intent on making a major issue over the fact that many cities may have kept their schools closed for too long during the pandemic. The argument is that children were generally less susceptible to Covid than the rest of the population and closing schools did little to stem the spread of the pandemic.

Based on these facts, they argue that we had a massive preventable loss in learning. This loss is especially serious for children from under-privileged backgrounds, whose families do not have the resources to help their kids close the learning gap.

The places where schools had remote or hybrid classes longest were mostly cities with Democratic mayors and/or strong teachers unions. Therefore, we should blame these liberal types for hurting the people they ostensibly care about.

The latest piece of ammunition for these critics came in a study from a number of prominent researchers showing that children in schools that were closed for longer periods of time fell furthest behind during the pandemic. This effect was largest in the poorest school districts.

This study was written up in a major article in the New York Times. The piece noted that students in the schools closed longest fell more than half a year behind as a result of the pandemic.

There seem to be many people anxious to mispresent the findings of this study. While it does show that students fell further behind the longer their schools were closed, it also shows that the bulk of the learning loss was due to the pandemic, not the school closings.

In the schools that were closed for the shortest duration, students in grades 3 through 8, fell 0.35 years behind grade level on math scores. In the schools that were closed longest they fell 0.57 years behind. This means that the extra period of closing was responsible for a loss of 0.22 years, roughly 40 percent of the total. And this is the additional loss for schools that were closed longest compared to schools that were closed the shortest, most obviously fell somewhere in the middle.

Of course, it is better not to have students lose any ground in their education, especially those from under-privileged backgrounds. But we need to be clear that even in the most extreme cases the issue was the 0.22 years, not the full pandemic loss.

And requiring in-person instruction did pose real risks, if not to the students, certainly to teachers and their families. It is understandable that a teacher with a serious health condition, or who had a family member with a serious health condition, would be reluctant to expose themselves to the pandemic any more than absolutely necessary, at least until the vaccines were widely available. And it is certainly understandable that the unions that represented these teachers would act to protect them.

We can argue that the cities that gave in to pressure from teachers and their unions made the wrong call, but we need to have a clear eye of what was at stake. It was 0.22 years of learning – definitely an unfortunate loss, but probably not something we would consider a disaster in most contexts.

Vaccines for the World?

While the New York Times has ample space for the argument that we kept schools closed longer than necessary, it’s worth noting something that we don’t see widely being relitigated: the availability of vaccines, as well as tests and treatments. Given the extraordinary nature of the worldwide Covid pandemic, it would have been reasonable to suspend normal rules on patents and intellectual property and have worldwide sharing of technology related to vaccines, tests, and treatments.

This would have meant an international agreement where the United States, Europe, China, India, and everyone else involved in research related to the pandemic would agree to make all their relevant technology fully open. This means putting everything up on the Internet so that researchers everywhere had access to the same knowledge that they could criticize and build on.[1]

It also meant that as soon as a technology was shown to be successful, anyone anywhere could take advantage of it. There have been many boasts about the speed with which Operation Warp Speed developed effective vaccines. This was indeed impressive, but effective vaccines were also developed in roughly the same time frame in China and Europe, and only a little bit slower in India and Cuba.

Vaccines were in short supply in much of the world in 2021 and into 2022. If all the vaccines were fully open-sourced, so that anyone could produce them, we almost certainly would have vaccinated the bulk of the world’s population much more quickly. This would have hugely slowed the spread, likely preventing the development of the omicron strain and possibly even the delta strain. Millions of lives could have been saved and tens of millions of infections prevented.

Would all the countries of the world have agreed to this sort of pandemic cooperation? We’ll never know, but we do know that we didn’t try and the failure to have such cooperation was enormously costly in terms of lives lost, health, and economic damage.

It might be worth giving some thought to this issue. We can spend as much time as we want beating up liberals for respecting teachers’ health concerns, at the cost of 0.2 years of lost learning. But maybe we can also spend a little time asking if there are not ways to do medical research that better serve society, even if they may perhaps not be as good for the pharmaceutical industry’s profits.  

[1] We could compensate companies after the fact for the profits that they lost due to the sharing of their technology.


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