The Elephant in the Room

We are confronted with a mounting toll of infections, massive unemployment, education that has been disrupted, and an economy that seems to be in free-fall. Without question, we are experiencing unprecedented times, and the future is as yet uncertain.

When it comes to our children, prolonged school closures associated with the coronavirus pandemic that occurred over the home stretch of last year’s school calendar have already significantly impacted learning, according to a wide range of experts.

The US education system was never designed to deal with extended shutdowns like those imposed by the pandemic. Teachers, administrators, and parents have worked heroically to keep the children’s learning alive; nevertheless, those efforts rarely measured up to the quality of education that was delivered in the classroom.

Add to that the pervasive confusion and uncertainty around the country of whether or not and how to open schools in the coming weeks. Based upon the sustained high infection rates in much of the country, some states have already declared that their schools will remain closed as the new School Year commences. And others will resort to some type of hybrid model, which will find students in the classroom only part-time.

Compounding the Problem

“Aside from dramatic changes in the daily functioning of schools, districts also have to brace themselves for what is likely to be a financial crisis far worse than the 2008 recession,” said San Diego Deputy County Superintendent, Mike Simonson, in an interview.

“School districts already were facing growing financial pressures before the pandemic — mainly from special education and pension costs as well as declining enrollment. They already have pressures, and now, if we’re going to add a revenue shortage, that will make things much more challenging this time around,” Simonson said.

The Devastating Impact of School Closures

Anya Kamenetz, an education correspondent at NPR, recently spoke with experts in the field of “education emergencies,”

Widespread school closures, she found, have profound and lasting impacts on kids, affecting both long-term academic metrics and mental health.

“[Students] will need lessons and school structures that help them cope with the new realities that give them hope and the skills they need to be part of the solutions,” Kamenetz writes. “This might mean assessing students’ new starting points, summer school, remediation, or acceleration. It might mean studying public health and epidemiology. It will certainly mean social and emotional support that help children, teachers, and families recover from this unprecedented break.”

Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina is a case in point. After most New Orleans public schools closed for the entire fall term due to Hurricane Katrina, Doug Harris, a professor of economics at Tulane University, found that it took children a full two years to recover lost learning.

Kids in New Orleans, he notes, dealt with a school district that completely shut down, massive job loss, the emotional trauma of a natural disaster, and collective disorientation once the city rebooted its school system post-Katrina.

Perhaps the way to gain perspective on the learning loss is to view it from the standpoint of typical learning loss incurred by children over summer vacation. The Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) did some sobering research on this using data and found in the summer following third grade, students lost 20 to 27% of their school year gains.

Unfortunately, that summer loss was even more significant for middle school students. During the summer post-seventh-grade, students lost 36% of their school year gains in reading and 50% in math.

Keep in mind that this sort of loss is happening in just ten weeks during the summer. With students around the country missing many more weeks of in-class instruction due to COVID-19, we can expect to see an even more significant slide.

The NWEA released a new study this month projecting COVID-19 learning loss based on summer slide data. They anticipate that students will return roughly 30% below a typical back to school student in reading and 50% below in math.

Financial Loss for the Children

According to experts, this cumulative learning loss will leave some students behind academically for years to come, even leading to meaningful lost income throughout their lifetimes. The students currently in school around the world stand to lose $10 trillion in labor earnings over their work life. To get a sense of the magnitude, this sum is one-tenth of the global GDP, or half of the annual economic output of the United States, or twice the global annual public expenditure on primary and secondary education.

It is estimated that the average K–12 student in the United States could lose $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings, or the equivalent of a year of full-time work, solely as a result of COVID-19–related learning losses. These costs are significant.

Exacerbating Racial and Cultural Disparities

Even more troubling is the context of the problem: The achievement disparities across income levels and between white students and students of black and Hispanic heritage have remained steady over the past few years. Prolonged school shutdowns will cause disproportionate learning losses for these students, compounding existing gaps.

This most likely will have long-term effects on these children’s long-term economic well-being and on the US economy as a whole. Lower-income students generally lack access to high-quality remote learning or to a conducive learning environment, such as a quiet space with minimal distractions, devices they do not need to share, high-speed internet, and parental academic supervision.

In addition to learning loss, COVID-19 closures will probably increase high-school drop-out rates (currently 6.5 percent for Hispanic, 5.5 percent for black, and 3.9 percent for white students, respectively). The virus is disrupting many of the supports that can help vulnerable kids stay in school: academic engagement and achievement, strong relationships with caring adults, and supportive home environments.

In districts across the country contact sports have either been eliminated from the “School Reopening Plan” or have yet to be decided. Disruptions such as this are likely to have a more profound impact on the academic motivation and performance of minorities, of whom a higher percentage were already struggling before COVID-19.

And the learning deficits will likely extend beyond the pandemic. Cuts to K–12 education are likely to hit low-income and racial-and ethnic-minority students disproportionately, which promises to further widen the achievement gap.

Acute Budgeting Priorities

Educators have a lot on their plate. And the last thing they need is for any of us to preach to them about what and what not to do. At the same time, amidst all of this turmoil and confusion, it may be helpful to suggest priorities to focus upon as they move to tackle the multi-faceted challenge of restoring academic success to our students.

Educational Assessments

Since most educators weren’t able to administer state assessments at the end of the last school year, the critical data extracted from these assessments will be non-existent when students begin the new school year. Lacking these assessments, placing students becomes little more than educated guesswork and will only exacerbate the problem.

Efforts must be made to conduct these assessments as soon as possible in the fall. This will facilitate placing students as accurately and as quickly as possible. Conducting these assessments may require more advanced assessment tools or contracting specialists who are highly trained to meet such a challenge in less time.

Compensating for Learning Losses

After educators identify each student’s academic status at the start of the new school year, which will invariably take into account significant loss, the issue is how teachers will address these learning gaps. Strategies will need to be crafted, and tools devised and personalized to compensate for each child’s loss.

Not every teacher may be equipped to deal with such hefty challenges. Schools will probably need to contract teachers with specialties in these areas or, at the very least, create teacher training programs to educate those teachers working with their students.

Bridging The Digital Divide in Education

Former Massachusetts Secretary of Education, Paul Reville, in a recent interview asserted: “We can’t leave this to chance or the accident of birth. All of our children should have the technology they need to learn outside of school. Some communities can take it for granted that their children will have such tools. Others who have been unable to afford to level the playing field are now finding ways to step up.

Students in certain school districts don’t have those affordances right now because often, the school districts don’t have the budget to do this. Still, federal, state, and local taxpayers are starting to see the imperative for coming together to meet this need.

Boston, for example, has bought 20,000 Chromebooks and is creating hotspots around the city where children and families can go to get internet access. That’s a great start, but, in the long run, I think we can do better than that. At the same time, many communities still need help just to do what Boston has done for its students.

Communities and school districts are going to have to adapt to get students on a level playing field. Otherwise, many students will continue to be at a huge disadvantage. We can see this playing out now as our lower-income and more heterogeneous school districts struggle over whether to proceed with online instruction when not everyone can access it.”

A Summary of the Priorities

Educators, principals, superintendents, and education policy experts are already thinking aloud about the myriad complications and expenses involved with reopening schools in a world where so much has changed. They include:

  • Increasing support staff should some districts decide to stagger reopening by having groups of students come certain days and learn remotely on others

  • Acquiring high-quality assessment tools and personnel to place students quickly

  • Purchasing academic programs to accelerate compensation for losses

  • Hiring educators and other personnel to lead the effort by helping teachers

  • Giving disadvantaged students the resources they need to succeed

  • Providing for every child the technological tools such as a laptop computer and access to WiFi to facilitate a full education in our new digital world

Confronting the Sobering Reality with Hope

No experienced administrator thinks that he/she is going to be able to catch up any time soon. As one administrator put it, “You are going to have to apply extended school services over the entire school year next year. We are going to have to look at personalizing this over the next year for all the different students that we have.”

But we must keep in mind that, throughout all of the difficulties, those entrusted with our children’s education revealed to us how special they really are. Their resilience, dedication and persistence during these trying months, in maintaining our children’s education at the highest level possible under the circumstances, instills confidence and gives us cause for great hope as we move forward into uncharted waters.