Evidence suggests there was no benefit to Ontario closing its schools

Posted on July 7, 2021 in Education Debates, Health Debates

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TheStar.com – Opinion/Contributors
Elizabeth Dhuey,

Among all the debates around our reaction to the pandemic, few have been as fraught as the question of school closures. This was for good reason — education serves as the very foundation of a liberal democratic society.

Within this debate, we have heard from policy-makers, epidemiologists, pediatricians, teachers, and parents. All of these voices are important, and all have provided perspective and analysis that helped us weather – and hopefully prevail over – the pandemic.

At this point, as we look to rebuild and understand the world moving forward, the work of social scientists is particularly important, as they have the methods and expertise to understand how society responds to change.

Evaluating any kind of policy intervention is challenging, whether they are carbon taxes, green vehicle subsidies, rent control programs, or — as in the past year — mask mandates and school closures. That is because neither the timing, nor the magnitude of the intervention, are chosen at random, but instead are determined by policy-makers in ways that reflect underlying behaviour and dynamics in society.

And indeed, society itself may anticipate such policy interventions, and citizens may change their behaviour in advance of, or concurrent with, these policy changes. Moreover, such policies often have unintended consequences whose effect must be accounted for as well. In this fog of government and human interventions, separating out cause and effect in the data can be complex, and simple analyses can support competing points of view.

Fortunately, economists and other social scientists have a robust tool kit of statistical methods that can be used to evaluate these policy changes. These statistical techniques provide the rigour and clarity needed to separate cause and effect and compare the application and outcomes of different policies across jurisdictions. For economists, this is our raison d’être.

It is hard to shift our thinking toward a cost-benefit mindset. For most of the pandemic, we have focused exclusively on figuring out what was “safe.” That was understandable, but it is now time to understand the choices and decisions that we made. It will take time to fully evaluate the true effects of pandemic-era policy interventions, such as stay-at-home orders and mask mandates, but the emerging evidence already suggests that the effectiveness of these was mixed, at best.

We have written before about the learning loss and the long-lasting effects — both individual and societal — of school closure. With the mountain of evidenceon the overwhelming importance of education, there is a strong argument that schools should have stayed open even if these were relatively high-transmission sites.

This school year is now over. But we need to understand the effect of the decisions that were made. A retroactive analysis of different policy choices provides clarity.

By comparing the experience of Ontario with that of other provinces it is now clear that provinces that kept schools open longer had outcomes that were no worse and, in many cases, better. The timing of the spring wave, in particular, was remarkably similar across B.C., Quebec and Ontario, with peaks occurring on almost the same day across all three.

Yet, the first two kept schools open throughout, while the last closed them in April and never reopened. Evidence from across North America now suggests that the damage caused by closing schools was inflicted for no benefit.

Ultimately, the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table and the Ontario government were too cautious in their approach. That caution was well-intentioned, but it is important now to acknowledge the mistakes that were made and the harms that were caused, in order to better inform policy going forward.

To this end, the government must solicit advice from a deeper bench of experts, from economics and other social science backgrounds, who can provide a more nuanced approach to the costs and benefits of keeping schools open.

The inclusion of such experts in the future will serve to demonstrate that the lessons learned from COVID-19 were not in vain, and to reaffirm our commitment to our children, our society, and to evidence-based decision making.

Ambarish Chandra and Elizabeth Dhuey are associate professors of economics at the University of Toronto.

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