A widely circulated article published in the November 2020 JAMA Network Open proposed that the loss of educational time due to Covid-19-related worldwide school closures would take years off the life expectancy of today’s children. The idea was that, even with the conglomerate millions of years of life lost due to Covid-19 mortalities, today’s elementary school children will incur overall loss of educational years. Studies in the past have demonstrated association between highest level of educational attainment and longer lifespan. Thus, if children lost unrecoverable educational time due to school closures, especially in the early months of the pandemic, this could, in turn, lead to diminished highest level of education, and, in turn, shorter lifespan. But is this really so?
As the issue of school closure has an remains paramount, especially since data on children’s ability to transmit the virus as well as become ill due to infection is varied, and schools have gone through exhaustive measures to create safety protocols, this study received a lot of exposure. I covered it for Forbes, and multiple outlets including CNN covered it as well.
As the data was so disturbing, epidemiology groups across the world decided to delve into the manuscript’s methodology. The authors of the article calculated that there was an average loss of 54 days per student ages 5-11 years of in-person instruction. Based on this figure, they then estimated “years of life lost” due to loss in educational attainment. The Brooking’s Institute published their analysis of the study’s data in the following weeks. A major shortcoming in the JAMA authors’ data is that there are several erroneous assumptions, thereby creating a potentially artificially contrived link between one piece of information and another.
While there is data that educational attainment is associated with better job security, more stable financial attainment, health and longevity, there is no evidence that uniform worldwide school closures during a pandemic will negatively impact overall worldwide educational attainment. Data from a study based in Argentina, assessing long term impacts on children due to teacher strikes found association between these strikes and potential for eventual loss of income on the part of the students. But looking at how the current pandemic affects children across all demographic and socioeconomic groups does not differentiate those children with minimal resources versus those with access to home computers, parental support, and schools which had resources to keep the transition from in-person to online education as seamlessly as possible.
Gideon Meyerwitz-Katz and Ilya Kashnitzky, researchers from the University of Woolongong, NSW, Australia and the University of Southern Denmark, published an open letter, strongly discrediting the value of the data published in JAMA. Their letter, entitled “Comparing Bad Apples to Orange Soda: Flaws and Errors in an Estimation of Years of Life Lost Associated With School Closures and COVID-19 Deaths” describes calculation errors as well as flaws in the JAMA paper’s study design, focusing on the concern that one cannot necessarily link (nor claim as cause) school days missed due to pandemic closures and eventual educational attainment. Dr. Kashinsky noted that “Years of life lost for kids consider deaths that are going to happen some 60-80 years into the future. All the calculations are based on period life tables, which assume no change in age-specific death rates fixed to 2017, through the remaining years of life of those kids involved. Mortality keeps improving, beyond the usual expectations of even the best demographers.”
He continued: “Even if we…reasonably forecast the future changes in age-specific death rates estimating life expectancy for the current school kids of the United States, there remains the huge problem with the assumptions involved to convert shortened schooling to shortened lifespan.” While Meyerwith-Katz and Kashinsky acknowledge that there is reasonable evidence that more highly educated individuals will have better understanding of health issues into adulthood, one cannot project what future educational attainment will mean several decades from now, nor what its value will be in the decades going forward.
Dr. Dmitri Christakis, lead author of the JAMA study, Editor in Chief of JAMA Pediatrics, George Adkins Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington and Director, Center for Child Health, Behavior & Development Seattle Childrens Research Institute was asked about concerns raised about the group’s data collection and analysis. He responded “the results will be essentially unchanged.”