The costs of school closures

by Edilberto de Jesus (FPPC Board Member)

Originally published in Rappler May 13, 2020

When measuring education losses arising from COVID-19, countries like Australia, France and the UK calculate hard cash losses from the drop in foreign student enrollment. They also worry about the erosion in the international renown of their universities and the legacy of their global roster of graduates.

While we do earn revenue from foreign students, we cannot yet claim heavy losses from a decline in whatever “soft power” our universities contribute.

Still, our accounting of total costs must compute for multiple components. Private schools count their costs on revenues they have to refund because of suspended sessions or lost because of lockdown. The Department of Education (Dep-Ed), Commission on Higher Education (CHED) and Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda) might focus on their 2020 budget of P692.6 billion. Most of these funds will be spent because roughly 80% support personnel costs. But their expenditures, depending on lockdown duration, will deliver a diminishing level of results.

From one perspective, parents are saving funds they do not have to pay for school fees and other associated expenses. But those who have jobs also suffer costs in lost productivity or income, if they cannot rely on relatives or household help to care for children forced to stay at home. The pace of the economy’s revival will also depend on returning the children to school so more parents can spend more time at work.

Eroding human capital

School closure in some countries means that children lose the lunch provided by primary schools, sometimes their most substantial meal of the day. Hence the malnutrition and health costs.

But the greater cost of truncated schooling comes in the loss of student learning, effectively eroding their human capital. Research in the United States suggests that even the scheduled summer break, not a sudden pandemic disruption, leads to children losing 25 to 50% of what they learned during the school year.

Other countries can do the math based on their assumptions, including the moderating impact of coping mechanisms. In Denmark, Slovenia and Sweden, 95% of 15-year-olds can work on a computer at home. In Incheon, South Korea, one school made tablets for online learning available to its 1000 students. Thirteen students took up the offer, only because they did not want to compete with siblings for their computer at home.

Even in developed countries, however, wealth is not equitably distributed, hence the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, stoking the rage of the 99% against the one percent. Almost all students in America’s wealthiest quartile enjoy online access, which is available to only 75% of those in the poorest quartile. Over half of private school pupils in Britain can take part in daily online classes, a facility enjoyed by only 20% of those in government schools.

Heavier toll on poor economies

Less developed economies face wider gaps between rich and poor and calamities take a heavier toll on the weakest sectors of their societies, with the younger, the more vulnerable. Some costs borne by children, although easy enough to imagine, are even more difficult to quantify than the depreciation in human capital.

Experts cite an increase in cases of domestic abuse under conditions of extended lockdown in the cramped quarters of the poor. Like missed school meals, problems of domestic abuse and depreciating human capital weigh more heavily on those below, and those struggling to stay above, the poverty line.

Beyond basic necessities, the children of the more affluent benefit from measures to cushion the impact of school closure on educational outcomes. Wealthy families can employ private tutors for the children. Rich parents, in any case, would be better educated and less intimidated by the schoolwork their children bring to them and, occupying the right side of the digital divide, can also provide the adult supervision required for effective online learning at home.

With classrooms locked down, student councils of leading universities in Manila asked CHED to block the shift to online learning. Although their schools were among those best positioned to move away from physical class attendance, student leaders realized that the majority of the students would be seriously disadvantaged by their lack of the devices or the internet connection and bandwidth for online instruction.

CHED has given Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) the flexibility to start classes in June – if they can do everything online, a condition the majority of schools cannot meet. Even blended, asynchronous learning would strain the capacity of most HEIs, even as it also imposes a handicap on the poorer students.

Government support

If our education authorities want a new education “normal” where blended learning is a viable strategy, they must go beyond simply encouraging its use. Government must provide funding support to enable the schools to make the change.

It must consider education as a necessary investment for the country’s future, not just a cost it has to reduce. CHED has complained that higher education receives no support from the Bayanihan funds.

Economists have been proclaiming our young population as the demographic dividend that would push the country’s development. COVID-19 will turn the dividend into a drag – unless the government rescues the educational system, public and private, so that it can continue to develop the country’s human capital.

Otherwise, it will need to factor into the calculation of the COVID-19 costs the damage that the growing education gap between rich and poor will inflict on the nation.

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