School Closures and Social Signaling

March 15, 2020 4:08 p.m.

You’ve likely seen this referenced in a number of emails I’ve posted. But I wanted to draw it together in a single post because to me it is a significant piece of information.

The decision to close schools involves a complex social and epidemiological calculus. But the act of closing schools itself seems to play a decisive role in public messaging. Populations don’t move into a true crisis footing until they hear that school systems are closing. Then they do.

I have spent recent days reading numerous reader emails about this. It is not a scientific or statistically representative sample. But it is anecdotal information that is consistent over a broad geographic range and in many demographic contexts. When you think about it, it is hardly surprising. A large percentage of the population is made up of people with school age children or children themselves. For them it is an immediate and intense impact on their daily lives. It gets their attention. The number of people affected secondarily is also large. Schooling is one of the biggest and most deeply socially integrated activities in our society. It’s extremely rare for schools to close other than for very brief closures after natural disasters. It sends a decisive signal about the seriousness of the situation.

Most of you who are reading this are TPM Readers who are by definition very high consumption news readers. The great majority of Americans only have a much more limited connections to the news, certainly to political and hard news where this information has been on a constant signal for a couple weeks. Lots of things don’t break through. Schools closing breaks through with a vengeance.

Based on what we’re seeing people with access to data will likely be able to do studies which examine the progression between school closure announcements and drop offs in vehicular traffic and public transportation density, purchase surges in grocery stores and intense drop off for small businesses in the entertainment and service sector.

I want to be clear in writing this that I am not arguing that we should be closing schools to get everyone’s attention or because of this signaling effect. I’m simply describing an observable social impact.

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