To that end, we created statistical models to estimate the potential impact of school closures on learning. The models were based on academic studies of the effectiveness of remote learning relative to traditional classroom instruction for three different kinds of students. We then evaluated this information in the context of three different epidemiological scenarios.

How much learning students lose during school closures varies significantly by access to remote learning, the quality of remote instruction, home support, and the degree of engagement. For simplicity’s sake, we have grouped high-school students into three archetypes. First, there are students who experience average-quality remote learning; this group continues to progress, but at a slower pace than if they had remained in school.4 Second, some students are getting lower-quality remote learning; they are generally stagnating at their current grade levels. Then there are students who are not getting any instruction at all; they are probably losing significant ground. Finally, some students drop out of high school altogether.

Even more troubling is the context: the persistent achievement disparities across income levels and between white students and students of black and Hispanic heritage. School shutdowns could not only cause disproportionate learning losses for these students—compounding existing gaps—but also lead more of them to drop out. This could have long-term effects on these children’s long-term economic well-being and on the US economy as a whole.

Despite the enormous attention devoted to the achievement gap, it has remained a stubborn feature of the US education system. In 2009, we estimated that the gap between white students and black and Hispanic ones deprived the US economy of $310 billion to $525 billion a year in productivity, equivalent to 2 to 4 percent of GDP. The achievement gap between high- and low-income students was even larger, at $400 billion to $670 billion, 3 to 5 percent of GDP.1 Although we calculate these two gaps separately, we recognize that black and Hispanic students are also more likely to live in poverty. Yet poverty alone cannot account for the gaps in educational performance. Together, they were the equivalent of a permanent economic recession.