Are We Headed To a Coronavirus Apocalypse In the Fall?

A laboratory technician of biotechnology company mAbxience is seen working, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Buenos Aires, Argentina August 13, 2020. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian
August 16, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: CoronavirusCOVID-19PandemicSchoolsFDA

Are We Headed To a Coronavirus Apocalypse In the Fall?

One former FDA head has some thoughts.

Is there much risk of slipping back into a recession? Certainly some economists, including the folks at Moody’s, have talked about that.

Strain: There’s some risk of slipping back into a recession. I think there’s real risk of having a “two or three steps forward, one step back” type of economy. That doesn’t get you a recession, but it does slow the rate of progress. I think my view at this point is that we’re going to have really rapid growth in the third quarter of the year — July, August, and September — that we’re going to have solid growth in the fourth quarter of the year, and then we’re going to end calendar year 2020 in a much better place than we were in in the second quarter. But given how bad the second quarter was, even if the second half of the year goes really, really well, it’s inconceivable to me that the economy at the end of 2020 won’t be in much worse shape than the economy was at the end of 2019.

How much of that relatively upbeat forecast for the second half of the year is dependent on what happens in Congress with this phase four support and stimulus package?

Strain: It sounds like a relatively upbeat forecast, but really what drives that forecast is just how bad the economy was in March and April. All of these quarterly growth rates are relative. And so progress in the third quarter is measured relative to the second quarter. And it doesn’t take much for the economy to improve relative to the second quarter, given how bad the second quarter was. So while I do think we will see significant improvement in the second half of 2020, that shouldn’t be confused for a statement that we won’t still be in terrible shape. And we’re going to be in bad, bad shape for quite some time. If you look at where we were in June and assume that we have no economic improvement in July, August, and September relative to where we were in June, we’re still going to see significant growth in the third quarter relative to the second quarter.

So as long as we don’t actually slide backward in a sustained way, we’re going to have a good summer and we’re going to go into the fall in good shape. If Congress does even the bare minimum, which I expect they will, that will still be true. Having said that, we really need another significant piece of economic recovery legislation in order to have the kind of recovery that we should be having from where we were in the spring with the lockdowns.

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 those kids, as well as the impact on their parents as workers?

Strain: Well, I think it’s really significant. And I think as a society we haven’t really given this enough weight. I’ve been surprised and disappointed at the extent to which the conversation around schools really treats schools as if they’re just daycare centers or as if there’s some sort of a weird credentialing institute that doesn’t actually do anything in terms of kids’ intellectual skill or social and emotional development. If the schools don’t open in September, it’s hard to understand why they would open in January. And so if we’re talking about a year of virtual learning — I think the school districts that are deciding not to open in September are deciding to be closed for the entire academic year — that’s a significant loss for those students.

Conventional economic estimates suggest that an additional year of schooling increases your wages as an adult by 9 percent per year. When you factor in that there was virtual learning taking place in the spring, you’re talking about lowering the wages of these kids, once these kids reach adulthood, by double digits — by 10 percent, 12 percent, something like that. Again, according to the conventional economic estimates, that’s going to hit lower income kids the hardest. Lower income kids are going to see earnings, wage, and income losses that are greater than that average estimate. And that’s really significant. That’s a significant, significant cost to those kids. It’s also a major cost to the longer term performance of the economy as a whole. And that’s to say nothing of what the impact is on the economy of today of having schools closed, by making it so hard for parents to go to work.

We really, I think, should be closing schools as a last resort. If we look back on this episode and we see that we let bars and tattoo parlors stay open, but we didn’t let kids go to school, then as a society we will have failed to deal with this crisis in a very fundamental and profound way. Right now the Washington, DC. Public schools, as of this morning, I believe, are planning to do only virtual learning. At the same time, you can still eat indoors at a restaurant. And this just represents a complete mis-ordering of what society’s priorities should be.

I want Rick to jump in, and then Scott.

Hess: First off, I think that is elegantly said. Part of what’s going on here is that the most vocal and influential interests in education have been saying, “Hey, let’s put our thumb on the scale of not opening.” So the teacher unions, for instance, have said, “Look, we want schools to reopen as long as they’re safe. But that’s going to cost hundreds of billions. It’s going to require extraordinary efforts. If there is any doubt in how we weigh this out, let’s not open.” You’ve heard the same thing from superintendents’ associations. Parents themselves are justifiably nervous.

So I think one of the things that’s happened in the calculation around schools, which has not happened with commercial enterprises, is we have had a lot of active, vocal interests raising all of the legitimate concerns, and there’s really not been any visible or organized or forceful push to say, “Well, wait a minute. We need to think about what it means for kids to not be in school.” So that’s part of that. When we think about what’s going to change in the decision process in December or in March, it’s not clear how that is going to evolve.

Look, the thing to keep in mind about virtual schooling is, in theory, it makes a heck of a lot of sense, especially as students get older. The opportunity for them to connect with expertise and with mentors who aren’t just the adult in their high school — all of this stuff makes a lot of sense in theory. The problem is it turns out to be really hard to design virtual education well under any circumstances. Most of what districts were offering in the spring and will be rolling out in the fall is duct-taped, stuck together, whatever they can get their hands on, with faculty who don’t know what they’re doing, operating under collective bargaining agreements that are highly restrictive in the things you need to do to make this work. And it turns out that while virtual learning environments work really well for some learners, for lots of students (especially young students) it’s the human dimension of schooling that makes it all work. They go to school and they kind of sit in class because they like to see their friends, because they like their teacher, because of all the other tissue that’s wrapped into schools.

Here’s a real simple example: About a decade ago, there was an explosion in higher education of these things called MOOCs. They were offered by faculty at places like Stanford and MIT. They were free online courses where you got to watch the video and take it. These are adult learners who are choosing voluntarily to take these courses. Tens of thousands of people signed up for some of the courses taught by the leading authority in the entire world. Generally speaking, when Harvard did an evaluation of its MOOCs, about 5 percent of students actually completed the courses. So even for motivated, interested, adult learners, the rate at which people are actually able to lock in and benefit from virtual learning is quite limited and hugely dependent on design. Now we are asking schools in a helter-skelter fashion to do this for tens of millions of kids with teachers who aren’t actually trained in it and may not be comfortable. I think when we think about the educational implications, for all the happy talk that folks are going to get from their local superintendents and their local teachers, I think they should be very concerned about how this plays out in practice.

When you’re talking about groups pushing for online schooling, keeping the schools at least partially closed, where is that potential counterweight, which we have not heard from, going to come from? Is it just an organic parents’ uprising? Is it just politicians taking the lead? Where does that energy emerge from?