How much will schools depend on remote instruction this fall? What shape will the economy be in at the end of the year? And how far away are we from a vaccine? Scott Gottlieb, Rick Hess, and Michael Strain explored these questions, and more, in a recent episode of Political Economy.
Scott Gottlieb is a resident fellow at AEI, and he is also the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Rick Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI, and he is the author of several books, includingBreakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age: Using Learning Science to Reboot Schooling. And Michael Strain is the Arthur F. Burns Scholar and director of economic policy studies at AEI. He is also the author ofThe American Dream Is Not Dead: (But Populism Could Kill It).
Below is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation. You can read our full discussion here. You can also subscribe to my podcast on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher, or download the podcast on Ricochet.
Pethokoukis: Rick, how prepared are schools to go fully remote thisfall? And what is your best guess, over the course of this year, of what shareof children will be going to school in person in the United States?
Hess: None of the 15 biggest school systems have said theyregoing fully remote, and most of them are not ready. Theres little reason tothink that anything is going to be much better than in the spring, which wentpretty poorly. The Census Bureau reported that the average student got about3.8 to four hours of instruction a week. Parents reported feeling overwhelmed.30 percent of adolescents reported feeling depressed, isolated. We saw hugeproblems in terms of childrens general wellbeing. The estimates are that wesaw unprecedented fall-offs in reading and math attainment.
This was after students had spent six months in school with theirpeers and getting to know their teachers. When kids show up this fall, theyregoing to know their teachers and their teachers are only going to know them as pixels and an email address. And many school districts wont even have liveinstruction, due to agreements between school districts and teachers unions.
Its hard to guess how many childrenwill have school in person this year. It looks like were going to start with maybe 20 or 30 percent ofkids showing up this fall for at least a part-time in-person experience.Depending on the course things take, you could imagine that being over half ofstudents by spring. You could also imagine it going the other direction.
Scott, what does the path of the virus look like going forward? Itstill seems like its pretty bad. Did we reopen too early? And are thesenumbers baked in, or is there anything we can do?
Gottlieb: I think its really hard to predict beyond really amonth on any of these models, because theres so much variability and so manythings that are going to happen behaviorally that are going to impact theepidemic. I think were likely to see a slowing in the Sunbelt states, butwere going to see other states heating up. Kentucky has a very big epidemic.Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee all look like they have a big epidemicunderway. Alabama, Louisiana, and South Carolina never really got out of theirepidemics.
We just have too much infection around this country, and we dontreally have a uniform approach to combat it we have disparate state-ledefforts with regional effects so we cant simultaneously snuff it out. And Idont know youre ever going to get to a more consistent approach at thispoint. I think that theres an inevitability to the situation were in rightnow, just from a policy and political and practical standpoint.
People said we reopened too early, and maybe theres some truth inthat. But I think the issue is more the speed of the reopening and how we reopened.We could have reopened early but reopened more deliberately and left certainthings shut. We shouldnt have reopened bars, and we should keep certain indoorcongregate settings that are purely for entertainment closed in perpetuityuntil we can figure out whether we have control. The priority should be tryingto open the schools and do other things that are more important from a socialstandpoint.
Mike, hows the economy doing? Theres been some talk amongeconomists that the V-shaped economic recovery is not happening, that theeconomy is sputtering. How do you see things?
Strain: The economy is in very bad shape. The most recent GDPreport shows the economy contracted by about one-third on an annualized basisin the second quarter, which shows just how deep and how severe the recessionwas. That represents the worst quarter of economic performance since the USbegan keeping records in the 1940s. Its devastating.
However, the economy in June was already considerablyoutperforming the second quarter average. So the economy is much better than itwas at its low point. The recession probably lasted two months and is probablyover. But so much damage was inflicted in the months of March and April that,even though we climbed quite a bit, were still in a very deep hole. Its goingto take many, many months of sustained rapid improvement until were finallyback to where we were in February.
As long as we dont actually slide backward in a sustained way,were going to have a good summer and were going to go into the fall in goodshape. Having said that, we really need another significant piece of economicrecovery legislation in order to have the kind of recovery that we should behaving. And given how bad thesecond quarter was, even if the second half of the year goes really well, itsinconceivable to me that the economy at the end of 2020 wont be in much worseshape than the economy was at the end of 2019.
What is the trade-off of having kids not go to school in person?What is the economic trade-off both as far as the lifetime impact on thosekids, as well as the impact on their parents as workers?
Strain: Its really significant, and I think as a society wehavent really given this enough weight. Ive been disappointed with how peoplehave been discussing schools as if theyre just daycare centers or credentialinginstitutes that dont contribute to kids intellectual skill or social andemotional development.
Conventional economic estimates suggest that an additional year ofschooling increases your wages as an adult by 9 percent per year, so this timeout of the classroom could lower the wages of these kids by 10 or 12 percentonce they reach adulthood. Thats going to hit lower income kids the hardest. Itsalso a major cost to the longer term performance of the economy as a whole, andthats to say nothing of the impact of school closures making it so hard forparents to go to work.
We really should be closing schools as a last resort. If we lookback on this episode and we see that we let bars and tattoo parlors stay open,but we didnt let kids go to school, then as a society we will have fundamentallyfailed to deal with this crisis.
Hess: Its hard to design virtual education well under anycircumstances. While it can work for some learners, lots of students (especiallyyoung students) need the human dimension of schooling. Many students go to classand learn because they like to see their friends and teacher. And they actually need to knowtheir teacher as something other than an occasional square on a Zoom screen. Toask kids to spend the fall semester or an entire year learning from somebodywhom they have never actually met in person is to be profoundly unrealisticabout how kids learn and how teachers do their job.
Even for motivatedadult learners, the rate at which people are actually able to lock in andbenefit from virtual learning is quite limited and hugely dependent on design. Soits important forkids to get into school buildings on at least a semi-regular basis.
Gottlieb: As important it is to open schools, we do need to bemindful not to let this virus become epidemic in children. While kids are lesslikely to get infected and less likely to become symptomatic, when they dobecome symptomatic, theyre either just as likely or even more likely totransmit the virus because theyre more likely to come into contact withadults, and youre more likely to hug and kiss your children when theyre sick.So they can be conduits to spread when they get symptomatic.
And then theres the question of whether or not children developsevere disease. Certainly, the morbidity skews heavily towards older adults,but remember that not a lot of kids have had this. The CDC documented about250,000 cases of kids developing symptomatic illness, and there are 76pediatric fatalities with COVID. Thats about the number of pediatricfatalities you see with flu, but in 2018-2019 about 11.8 million kids wereprojected to have symptomatic flu. So if COVID infected 11.8 million kids Idont think we want to see what that would look like. So we should make sure wereopen schools with precautions in place so that this doesnt become epidemicin children.
Scott, are we being too optimistic about vaccines? When are welikely to get a vaccine by?
Gottlieb: Im on the board of Pfizer, which has one of thevaccines thats in advanced development right now, and I think a reasonablebase case is that we could have a vaccine in early 2021. Thats an optimisticscenario, but its not an unreasonable scenario if the clinical trialsdemonstrate that the vaccines are safe and effective. If theyre able tosuccessfully manufacture these products, you could have a situation where youhave an FDA-licensed vaccine in early 2021. And there may be a vaccineavailable earlier under an emergency use authorization for a very selectpopulation lets say, frontline healthcare workers that is enrolled in a registrywhere you continue to follow them and collect safety and efficacy information.
Getting enough people vaccinated would happen quickly. At least, Idont think that theres going to be a logistical problem. Well have enoughglass and syringes to vaccinate people. I think the question is, how quicklywould people take up the vaccine? And thats going to turn on how effective thedata is, how much confidence people have in the process, how we approach itpolitically in terms of whether people have confidence that the process wasobjective and rigorous.
But I think that there would be a pent-up demand. Enough people would want to get vaccinated to provide the societal benefit. You dont need to vaccinate everyone. A lot of people will have had coronavirus by then. So if you can get 3040 percent vaccination rates, thats pretty good. And its probably sufficient to quell this epidemic.
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