The True Cost of COVID-19 School Closures

by | May 5, 2020

Last week, I published with colleagues from the Brookings Institution and the World Bank some preliminary evidence on how much school closures arising from COVID-19 will cost today’s students in lost earnings over their careers.

According to our model, just four months of school and university closures across the United States could result in a $2.5 trillion total loss in future earnings. This is a relatively likely scenario: already 46 states have ordered or recommended closures to the end of the academic year. And at a global level, these new data suggest that the current generation of students could lose up to $10 trillion as a result of COVID-19 closures over the course of their careers.

Many governments have responded quickly to put resources in place for learning, even while schools are closed. According to Emiliana Vegas at Brookings, close to 90% of high-income countries have programmes in place, almost all delivered online. However, the story is different at the other end of the spectrum, where less than 25% have shared resources, and those who have are usually relying on TV and radio. School closures seem likely to have the most negative impact on learning, and therefore earning, for the poorest children living in low-income countries.

Economic returns to education, and even learning itself, are not the only important thing about going to school, especially for poor and vulnerable children. Last month, the World Food Programme warned the Security Council that nearly 370 million children are missing out on school lunches: in many cases their only meal of the day. And back in March, Angelina Jolie in her role as Special Envoy for UNHCR pointed out the risks of even temporary school closures for children at risk from violence, radicalisation, exploitation and permanent drop out.

With this in mind, we will be looking in more detail at three big questions as we refine our thinking about what today’s students are giving up to help protect their societies from COVID-19:

1. How does the projected loss of future earnings and the severity of its impact on young people’s prospects differ between rich and poor countries?

2. Within countries, which groups of children and young people are likely to suffer most from the economic impact of lost learning and access to education?

3. How does the sacrifice being made by young people as a result of lost education compare with that being made by other parts of the population?


  • specialises in working with governments to help them strengthen delivery of public services, particularly education, in fragile and conflict affected states. She has acted as an adviser to senior officials and politicians in a range of countries, including Pakistan, Nigeria and Lebanon. Victoria is Managing Director of River Path Associates, and collaborates regularly with other consulting firms. She is also a Director of the Acasus Foundation. Since 2015 she has served on the board of the Eden Academy Trust, a multi-academy trust of schools for children with complex educational and health needs in London and the North East of England.

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