Bill Gates: Schools may reopen in fall but no one can ‘wave a wand’ to fix US economy

Schools closed because of the coronavirus will likely reopen in the fall but reviving the U.S. economy to pre-outbreak levels will be a taller order, Bill Gates said Thursday.

The 64-year-old billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, who with his wife now runs the philanthropic Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, made the remarks during an interview on CNBC.

“I do think school will be able to resume in the fall,” Gates told “Squawk Box” host Becky Quick. “But I don’t think this school year there’s going to be any significant attendance."

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States’ school closure policies currently range from “recommended closure,” to “closed until further notice,” to “closed for the academic year.” In between are closures with tentative reopenings set for April or May, according to Education Week.

Gates noted that many private schools have used online learning to keep classes going but the option is less commonplace in public schools, in part because of concerns about low-income families lacking internet connectivity.

“Different school districts have decided some don’t do online learning because it would be unjust in terms of the kids who don’t have access,” Gates told Quick. “And so that’s really a dilemma.”

He said philanthropists such as Ray Dalio and Jeff Bezos were involved in trying to make online learning more broadly available.

As for the economy, Gates said some industries will likely be able to come back by the end of May – such as manufacturing and construction. But until a coronavirus vaccine is available, it may take longer for crowd-based businesses, such as pro sports or air travel, to fully return because of lingering potential health risks.

He also said a green light from government won’t guarantee a complete rebound for the economy – because the public’s behavior will play a large role in determining which companies come back successfully and which don’t.

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“The behavior of people in terms of wanting to travel or go to events or even go to a restaurant, it’s been utterly changed by the concerns about this disease,” he said. “No one should think the government can wave a wand and all of a sudden the economy is anything like it was before this happened. That awaits either a miracle therapeutic that has an over 95 percent cure rate, or broad usage of the vaccine” – which he said could still be as much as 18 months away.

Gates’ remarks came the same day the Labor Department reported a third straight spike in weekly jobless claims, bringing the three-week total to more than 16 million people out of work in connection with the outbreak.