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Students’ educations will suffer because of our failure to control COVID-19

It’s the hardest on the youngest learners

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Illustration by Grayson Blackmon / Alex Castro / The Verge

The US’s failure to control the COVID-19 pandemic has obliterated any chance that kids will have a normal school year this year. They’ll learn online, only go to classrooms a few days a week, or go to classrooms until an outbreak starts to burn through their schools. 

None of these are good options. And no matter which choice any of the 13,000 school districts in the country make, there will be consequences. If they open for in-person classes, especially in areas where the virus is still spreading, there’s a risk that some kids, their family members, or their teachers could get sick or die. If they don’t, the kids face a less acutely dangerous but still important risk: they may fall further behind on their educational development. The impact will be different on children and adolescents of different ages, but they’ll all be affected.

Debates over the health consequences of in-person schooling for students, their teachers, and their communities are ongoing. Decisions on whether to reopen schools or send kids back may vary by local case numbers, facilities, individual family circumstances, and myriad other factors. Health isn’t the only piece of the equation, though. The Verge spoke with experts about the weight counterbalancing it: the educational fallout from a disrupted school semester.  

That potential harm is why the American Academy of Pediatrics called in July for local officials to prioritize developing ways to reopen schools safely, and why the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) came to the same conclusion.

The risks to education are particularly acute for kids who are already behind and who may not have access to the resources they need to learn from home. A disrupted school year will likely widen achievement gaps between white students and Black students. Black, Hispanic, and low-income students will fall the furthest behind and have the highest dropout rates, according to one analysis. But Black and Hispanic children in the US are also more vulnerable to the virus that could spread through classrooms — they’re more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than white children, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. 

“Disruptions in schooling are not really good for anyone,” says Chloe Gibbs, who studies education policy at the University of Notre Dame department of economics. “You’re certainly going to have effects for kids at all ages.”

Pre-K and Kindergarten

Children this young will have a hard time handling online school. Teachers won’t be able to recreate the socialization and cognitive skill-building that happens in pre-K and kindergarten classrooms through the screen. Losing out on face-to-face time with peers and teachers isn’t something that can be easily replaced. 

“Kids’ early environments really matter,” Gibbs says. “So when we are potentially disrupting their connection to a formal learning environment, that can have devastating consequences.” 

“when we are potentially disrupting their connection to a formal learning environment, that can have devastating consequences”

Some amount of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten education is better than none, Gibbs says. Children who were in a classroom last year and won’t be this year are probably better off than those whose parents were planning to send them to a pre-kindergarten program for the first time this fall but now aren’t able to. “Kids that have been connected to them before are probably already on a better trajectory. Those other kids are missing out wholly on that experience,” she says. 

Some families may be able to re-create a few of those experiences — like being read to, making up stories, and learning songs — at home. Those, though, are more likely to be families where the children didn’t have as much need for the boost early childhood programs provide. In those homes, the activities that get kids acclimated to schooling and learning are more likely to continue, Gibbs says. “In the homes where there’s a working parent ... they’re not able to do those same things,” she says. Parents may be busy working and not able to spend as much time reading, or they might not have the same access to books.

That’s one reason education policy focuses on early educational programs for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. Those programs can have long-term benefits, stretching all the way into adulthood, some research shows. “If you’re scaling some of that back, I think it could have cascading effects across kids’ lifetimes,” Gibbs says. “Those gaps are just going to widen.” 

Even outside of developing early skills, like recognizing letters, that help build hard knowledge, kids who aren’t able to be in a kindergarten classroom will lose out on social and emotional growth, Gibbs says. A big part of school at that age is learning how to be in a group environment, how to interact with other children, and how to interact with teachers. Kids are starting to learn how to regulate their emotions and how to adjust their behavior in response to others. That takes physical interaction with the other four- and five-year-olds. Even if it’s possible to bring kids’ learning back up to speed after the pandemic, the social element will be harder to reestablish.

One of the most important things for children’s early learning is developing close and trusting relationships with their teachers and other adults outside the home, Gibbs says. If pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers can keep those in place virtually, it would help shore up learning during a disrupted semester. 

“Anything we could do to bring that personal attention and those caring relationships to the online space would be really crucial,” Gibbs says. 

Elementary school

In elementary school, kids develop literacy skills that create a foundation for the rest of their future learning. Kindergarten and first grade are when students learn to read, and in second grade, they have to apply their literacy skills in the service of learning other things. “We call it ‘reading to learn,’” says Valerie Robnolt, who studies literacy education at Virginia Commonwealth University. Students need to know how to read in order to eventually do complex math or learn history. 

By the end of third grade, children should be able to read fluently. If they can’t, they’re four times more likely to drop out of school before finishing high school, research shows. 

During a normal summer, kids in elementary school forget what they learned in reading and math during the school year. Experts call it summer learning loss, and everyone experiences it differently. Some kids come back in the fall with most of their skills intact. “Other students basically lose all of their school year,” says Allison Atteberry, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. Though not all of the variation in summer learning loss can be traced back to demographics, students of color and low-income students tend to have greater drop-offs. 

Many districts try to combat this loss by sending bags of books home with low-income elementary school students so that they have at least some ways to keep up with their reading over the summer, Robnolt says. “This year, that probably didn’t happen,” she says. Libraries were closed over the summer, as well. “The library has online resources, but then we have the issue of families not having internet access,” Robnolt says. 

“This long summer will exacerbate inequality”

This year, summer was longer than usual — school shut down because of the pandemic in March and April. Early school closures may have led to steeper-than-normal declines in reading and math for third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders, according to a report from the nonprofit education research group NWEA (formerly the Northwest Evaluation Association). A remote-learning fall could only make that gap worse. “This long summer will exacerbate inequality,” Robnolt says. “When kids come back, I think teachers will come back to a classroom with bigger differences in where kids are.” 

There could be ways to augment an online school semester for students in elementary school, Gibbs says. It may make sense to pair children in first or second grade, at critical points in their reading development, with specialized coaches to make sure they don’t lose ground. “Maybe there are college kids who serve as kind of mentors in the virtual space. I think we should be really creative about that,” she says. Like with pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, the personal relationships with teachers and other adults are critical. Bolstering those connections could help keep kids moving in the right direction. 

“It’s things that help them really feel that they’re still kind of a valued learner, and they’re still connected to that learning space,” Gibbs says. 

Middle school

Like elementary school kids, the extended summer means middle school students are likely returning to school this year with more summer learning loss than they normally do. Kids tend to lose less of what they learned during the school year as they get older, so middle schoolers may not have as much extra ground to make up as elementary school students, but it’s still a factor. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in first grade or if you’re in eighth grade,” Atteberry says. 

Middle school students are more equipped to keep learning online than elementary school kids, Robnolt says, so she’s not as concerned about their ability to keep up with reading and literacy. They may still lose out in some skill development, but it’s not likely to be as severe as with younger kids. 

Middle school, though, is when students start to develop science literacy skills, says Sameer Honwad, an assistant professor of learning and instruction at the University of Buffalo. That’s when they start to build their understanding of the scientific process and the toolkit they need to make sense of scientific information through the rest of their education. 

Collaboration and group work is critical to good science education.

Collaboration and group work is critical to good science education, Honwad says. That’s harder to do virtually or via in-person school environments where kids aren’t able to share equipment or work physically close to one another. Even though sixth- and seventh-graders may be able to learn from teachers on digital platforms, it’ll be harder for them to work together on those same platforms. “They’re more dependent on their parents for, say, computers and phones and other things,” he says. “They may find it more difficult to collaborate with each other.”

Despite those losses, though, Honwad is optimistic that kids at this age will be able to catch up in science. “I’m not crazy worried. I think the kids will find a way,” he says.  

High school 

High schoolers are the most equipped to be able to weather school disruptions, in whatever form they may take: their educational foundations are already in place, and they’re better equipped to navigate an online learning environment. “I’m running a summer program right now with high school kids, and we told them, ‘Okay, collaborate on Zoom,’ and they figured it out,” Honwad says. 

The biggest risk for high school students is a disconnection from school entirely.

The biggest risk for high school students is a disconnection from school entirely, Gibbs says. While the age group might be the best equipped to navigate virtual learning, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are the least likely to actually engage with those environments. That’s what happened in the shift online in the spring, she says. For example, attendance in low-income high schools in Broward County, Florida dropped off in April. Wealthier schools’ attendance rates were steady.

The same pattern will likely continue in the fall. Even though low-income high school students, who may not have as much access to online resources, may already have solid math and reading skills, they’ll still lose out on educational development. “They’re going to fall behind relative to their peers,” Gibbs says. 

A disrupted fall semester might push some of those students, particularly those who are close to graduation anyway, to drop out of school. When polio outbreaks closed schools in 1916, kids close to legal working age ended up leaving and had fewer years of formal education than people who were older during that same year. The concern is that kids on the cusp may not reconnect at all, Gibbs says. “These kind of shocks that disconnect the kids from their physical schools might result in them fully leaving school.”