Report Highlights Cost of Pandemic School Closures, Limited Effectiveness of Lockdowns

A working paper that examined how U.S. states responded to the COVID-19 pandemic found that states with strict lockdowns and other COVID-19 policies did little to prevent COVID-19 deaths, but those economic restrictions and school closures proved costly in other ways.

“School closures may ultimately prove to be the most costly policy decision of the pandemic era in both economic and mortality terms,” University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan and fellow authors Stephen Moore and Phil Kerpen of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity wrote in the paper.

“One study found that school closures at the end of the previous 2019-2020 school year are associated with 13.8 million years of life lost. An [National Institutes of Health] analysis found that life expectancy for high school graduates is 4 to 6 years longer than high school dropouts,” the authors wrote. “The [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] estimates that learning losses from pandemic era school closures could cause a 3 percent decline in lifetime earnings, and that a loss of just one third of a year of learning has a long-term economic impact of $14 trillion.”

The report noted that, “Unlike mortality or economic outcomes, closing public schools was entirely under the control of policymakers. Almost all private schools were open.”

The National Bureau of Economic Research working paper looked at how states fared on health outcomes, economic performance and impact on education. It then ranked the combined performance of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Utah, Nebraska, Vermont, Montana, South Dakota, Florida, New Hampshire, Maine, Arkansas and Idaho ranked in the top 10. At the bottom were Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Nevada, Maryland, Illinois, California, New Mexico, New York, the District of Columbia, and New Jersey.

The authors used unemployment data and gross domestic product to measure economic performance. For education, they used the Burbio cumulative in-person instruction percentage for the complete 2020–2021 school year, with hybrid instruction weighted half. To measure mortality, the authors used two measures: COVID-19-associated deaths reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and all-cause excess mortality.

“The correlation between health and economy scores is essentially zero, which suggests that states that withdrew the most from economic activity did not significantly improve health by doing so,” the authors wrote.

One notable exception was Hawaii.

“It ranks last on the economic index and sixth from last on schooling. As of March 2022, it ranks first on health. Understood in the context of island nations such as Australia and New Zealand, the experience of [Hawaii] suggests that island locations can, by sustaining significant economic losses, reduce mortality for a year or more. (Australia and New Zealand saw higher outbreaks in later stages of the virus spread.) Interestingly, Maine opened its schools at almost triple the rate as Hawaii did and was able to achieve a health score almost as high,” the authors wrote.

Mulligan, with the University of Chicago Department of Economics, said states that didn’t follow CDC guidelines performed better than those that did. More broadly, he said the research shows that federalism worked by allowing states to respond to the pandemic individually.

“It would have been a shame if [former President Donald] Trump had said ‘no lockdowns,’ ” he said.

Federal agencies such as the CDC and Department of Education should have played more informational roles during the pandemic. In particular, Mulligan said the Department of Education should have gathered data from private schools to share with public schools about best practices for operating safely. The CDC could have done the same.

“Pandemic mortality was greater in states where obesity, diabetes, and old age were more prevalent before the pandemic. Economic activity was less in states that had been intensive in, especially, accommodations and food,” the authors concluded. “Still, much residual variation in both mortality and economic activity remains even after controlling for these factors because the 50 states and DC took very different approaches to confronting the COVID-19 pandemic.”

By Brett Rowland