America's Children Should Be First Priority for Vaccinations: The Economic Argument
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America looks toward the winter with a contradictory mix of dread and hope. The pandemic spreads out of control throughout the country, but with the vaccines just on the horizon. Now, the issue is who gets them first. Frontline responders and the elderly are usually the first candidates mentioned. Certainly, they should be considered.
But what about the children? The economic argument strongly favors placing them at the top of the list, particularly as schools shut down again. This is not just an argument about getting kids out of the house so their parents can return to work. The economic argument for vaccinating children first has long-term implications for their education, their future earning potential, and the fate of the American economy for decades to come.
A number of studies have documented the devastating lifelong economic costs of a lost education – for future earners and the national economy. A study published by an international team of researchers estimated that the school shutdowns in the U.S. last spring will reduce GDP by more than $14 trillion in the decades to come. The researchers noted that the figure is actually likely to be much higher, as much as $28 trillion, given that the school shutdowns extended into fall. What is particularly troubling is that these estimates did not consider the dire long-term economic losses of shutdowns extending into 2021. Children who lose just a few months of education are more likely to face a lifetime of lowered earning potential.
These figures should not distract from the human toll of school shutdowns. The children who lose the most from remote learning are already from lower-income families. The digital divide distances these children from the technology and skills necessary to succeed in remote learning. Across the country, schools report a dramatic increase in failure rates, particularly for children from poor families. These kids are less likely to have computers, WiFi access, and, most importantly, parental guidance to supervise and assist their remote learning.
America faces a widening of the socioeconomic divide as the pandemic generation comes of working age. Children with the privilege of Internet savvy parents, many of them working from home themselves and able to provide immediate supervision, will lose the least from remote learning. Children from working-class and working-poor households will fall into the academic gap of the digital divide.
Putting children first in line for vaccinations means that they will no longer present a threat to teachers, faculty, their families, and their communities. Schools can reopen, and we can put a quick end to the national experiment of remote learning. Meanwhile, parents thrust into daycare roles can return to work as well. The short-term gains for the economy are obvious. American parents can heave a sigh of relief, and return to work, knowing their children are safe from infection and transmission.
Of course, this scenario presumes parents will agree to vaccinate their children. Always an idealist, I cannot help but believe that anti-vaxxer sentiment will decline as parents realize the costs of denying their children an education based on flimsy conspiracy theories. Public health messaging will need to educate parents about the safety protocols that make these vaccinations safe.
American children should not suffer any longer. Their short-term educational losses from remote learning will translate into long-term economic losses for themselves, their families, and the nation. Vaccinate our children first, so they can be the first to reenter their rightful place in the schools.