Economics professor notes drop in maltreatment reports during school closings

Economics professor notes drop in maltreatment reports during school closings

R eports of child maltreatment dramatically declined during the early days of COVID, when schools nationwide closed their doors and switched to online learning.

A new assistant professor of economics at Georgia College, Dr. Cullen Wallace, and his research partners were first to examine the impact of school closings on abuse. By focusing on Florida—which updates its data system monthly—researchers were able to study the issue in ‘real time.’

The magnitude was surprising. I don’t think the cost of keeping schools closed was at the forefront of people’s minds, which is why we wanted to document it.
– Dr. Cullen Wallace
What they found was startling. While you might think the number of maltreatment cases would go up due to high parental stress, rapid lockdowns, job losses and unprecedented pandemic—the opposite occurred. Maltreatment went largely undetected.

About 27 percent or 15,000 fewer child maltreatment cases were reported in Florida during March and April 2020. This can be generalized to reflect what occurred nationwide, Wallace said. Roughly 213,000 fewer maltreatment cases were reported in the United States during those months.

The decline directly correlated to what’s normally seen in June and July during summer break and in December when schools are closed.

“The magnitude was surprising. I don’t think the cost of keeping schools closed was at the forefront of people’s minds, which is why we wanted to document it,” Wallace said.

“You can think of almost anything in economic terms,” he added. “At the heart of economics are costs and benefits. It doesn’t have to be a financial cost. But there’s still a cost or benefit to everything we do. A good decision, even one regarding school shutdowns, is one in which benefits exceed the costs.”

Wallace reviews his research online.
Wallace reviews his research online.

Wallace got his undergraduate degree in economics from Georgia College in 2015. When COVID struck, he was getting a doctorate at Florida State University and finalizing a paper on U.S. adoption tax credits. Quickly pivoting his focus to maltreatment reports, Wallace teamed up with E. Jason Baron and Ezra G. Goldstein to record the impact of school closings as they happened.

The study, submitted in May 2020, was noted last fall on Fox News by Scott Atlas, a White House adviser and Coronavirus Task Force member under former U.S. President Donald Trump. It was also cited in the New York Times.

There’s undeniably a huge economic impact from lockdowns in general. First off, the economy shut down as a whole. People weren’t able to go to work. People weren’t able to earn. Businesses had a hard time staying open. And, with the virus, you’ve got the school shutdowns. That’s a lot of fodder for economic researchers to look at.
– Wallace

Schools started closing in mid-March 2020 during the U.S. outbreak of COVID. Many school systems closed the same week. In the three most populous states—New York, California and Texas—schools closed within four days of each other. So, “you had a massive number of students home that one week in March,” Wallace noted.

There are other negatives to consider before closing schools, like the potential loss of learning, children not getting adequate nutrition and parent stress levels as they juggle work and child care. But Wallace’s group wanted to know if educators—as the number one reporter of child abuse—would continue to discern signs of maltreatment online.

Dr. Cullen Wallace
Dr. Cullen Wallace
Reporting numbers faltered, and this made school closure too costly, Wallace said.

It seems reasonable to think fewer allegations mean less maltreatment. But with people quarantining at home and facing an uncertain future, Wallace and his partners believe lower numbers point to more children-at-risk.

His team recommended careful consideration before closing schools in the future. They also called for an easier reporting path for family members and neighbors. When teachers can’t closely monitor children, it’s this second line of defense that needs help stepping forward.

“With policy recommendations, the big one we looked at was ‘Hey, don’t forget about this cost.' This is a real cost that needs to be considered when you’re weighing the calculus of whether to keep schools open or to close them,” Wallace said.

“Going forward, if heaven forbid there’s another pandemic, unless you have a virus that more heavily affects children, you might want to react differently,” he said. “There are serious costs that come with closing schools down.”