Bill Gates on back to school: Benefits in ‘almost every location’ outweigh costs for young children

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates told CNBC it’s important for young students to return to school for in-person learning, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

“I’m a big believer that for young children, the benefits in almost every location — particularly if you can protect the teachers well — the benefits outweigh the costs,” he said in an interview that aired Tuesday on “Squawk Box.”  

However, the back-to-school picture gets more complicated as the students get older, the Microsoft co-founder said. 

“As you get up to age, like, 13 and higher, then you’ll have to look at your locale to decide what you’ll do with high schools,” he said. “And if they’re not in, then you have to put massive effort into trying to get there to be continued learning online.”

Gates’ charitable foundation has contributed millions to coronavirus vaccine research. The tech mogul said the organization also has changed the focus of its educational efforts in response to the public health crisis.

“Our foundation has revamped our education work to really jump in and help … get those online capabilities up,” he said. “Make sure that minority students and low-income students aren’t suffering the most throughout all of this.” 

Gates’ comments come as school districts across the U.S. prepare plans for fall classes despite the threat of the Covid-19 outbreak. The Trump administration has lately increased its calls for schools to fully reopen for in-person class, emphasizing the social and emotional costs of not doing so. 

The nation’s largest public school system in New York City has said it intends for most students to attend in-person class two or three days per week in the fall. On the other days, students will have remote instruction. New York City school officials said that limited in-person instruction is needed to allow for social distancing within the buildings. 

California’s two largest school systems — in Los Angeles and San Diego — now plan to begin the fall academic period completely online after the state’s coronavirus outbreak worsened in recent weeks. 

Younger people without underlying medical conditions face less risk of becoming severely ill from Covid-19. But central to the return-to-school debate is how likely students are to become infected by the coronavirus, as well as their role in transmitting the virus to other people, particularly school staff and their families. 

A recent study in South Korea offered some insight, finding that children over the age of 10 presented a higher risk of household transmission of the coronavirus than children under 10. 

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner under President Donald Trump, has said he believes it is possible for schools to reopen safely in the fall. However, he told CNBC last week that the most important thing communities can do to reopen their schools is to get local spread of the coronavirus under control first.

Like Gates, Gottlieb said Friday on “Squawk Box” that districts may find it easier to have younger students return to in-person class five days per week compared to older students. Social distancing may be more challenging in high schools, and older students may also be better suited to handle online learning through a hybrid model of instruction, Gottlieb said. 

“I think there are things you can do across the district where you handle different ages different, as well, in order to make sure children remain safe in different environments,” Gottlieb said. 

Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic-testing start-up Tempus and biotech company Illumina.

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