For kindergarten through 12th grade schools in the US, this month marks the end of the academic year – the third since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Most schools return to individual learning after several semesters of virtual learning, but teachers such as Peter Ballantoni continue to worry unusual years have left students further behind.
“Earlier this year the student failure rate was atrocious,” said Ballantoni, a high school music teacher in Patterson, New York. “Forty percent of our students were failing two or more classes, and that’s padding their grades with us.”
Instead of focusing solely on helping students catch up on the material they missed, Ballantoni and other teachers have also had to address the emotional needs of students struggling after a long period of pandemic-induced isolation.
“We’ve had to do tip-toe around learning issues to make sure kids are okay,” he explained. “We had more fights, more bickering issues at our school, and more kids hiding in awkward places — stairways, corners, and in the bathroom trying to make lunch alone. We had to deal with that first. It’s basically There is a third wasted school year due to COVID.”
It is challenging to measure the impact of the pandemic on students at this early stage.
But researchers and teachers agree that nearly all students were affected in some way, even though each state and school balanced safety and learning differently.
The Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University estimated that a fifth of US students were enrolled in districts that continued virtual education for the majority of the 2020-21 school year. Those students, he says, lost the equivalent of 22 weeks of learning.
“I don’t know about the empirical evidence,” said Bill Klopenberg, a high school teacher in Boise, Idaho, “but I can see the students right in front of their eyes. They’ve basically lost a year of school.” “
In the spring of 2020 (the 2020-20 school year), which coincided with the beginning of the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in the US, almost all US schools turned to distance learning.
The results were disastrous. Distance learning was new to most Americans and schools struggled to overcome the technical hurdles of building virtual classrooms on the fly.
“The hardest thing was even knowing if the students were paying attention, because they didn’t need to have their camera,” said Adam Melchin, a math teacher at a North Carolina high school. “We weren’t allowed to fail them, even if they didn’t turn in the assignment, and when the students realized this, they stopped working altogether.”
Two years later, Melchin said he is still struggling to help students reach this stage of their educational development.
“He missed many of the basic, foundational skills my class needed,” he explained, “so I can’t go into my curriculum until he’s got that previous knowledge.”
Parents are quite concerned about the pedagogical implications of learning gaps. However, many — including Rebecca Urrutia, a mother of four in Toland, Connecticut — are equally distressed by the social and emotional toll of the pandemic.
“It was soul-sucking for my kids to be ‘at school’ on their computers for six hours every day,” she said. “Even when they returned to learning in person, children were not allowed to socialize. The school would play movies during lunch and keep them masked and away.”
Research released jointly by Lurie Children’s Hospital and the University of Chicago showed that 80% of parents said their children spent less time in person with friends, while 63% of parents said that Their children spend more time alone and on screen. educational purposes.
It should come as no surprise, then, that more than a third of the children in the study were described by parents as lonely, while almost 25% were reported as anxious, stressed, agitated and angry.
The US Centers for Disease Control reported that in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, mental health-related emergency room visits increased by 31% for adolescents aged 12-17 compared to 2019. Suspected suicide attempts also increased in that age group, especially in the middle of the epidemic as female adolescent girls took hold.
“It stunted the social and emotional development of so many children,” Urrutia said. “We have this whole generation of kids who need to re-learn how humans work—how to communicate with people again.”
closing the gap
While American students across the board have been hit by the pandemic, low-income students have been hit hardest.
Data from Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research showed that the education gap between students of different income levels has widened over the past three school years. For students who went to schools that continued virtual learning for most of the previous year, for example, more affluent schools lost the equivalent of 13 weeks of individual instruction, while less affluent schools lost the equivalent of 22 weeks. have lost.
Ethnicity-based educational gaps have also widened during the pandemic. A recent study found that elementary school achievement in reading and math declined more for Hispanic and black students than their white and Asian American peers.
Teachers say that parental involvement has been particularly important in distance learning.
Idaho’s Klopenberg explained, “If the child had family members who could monitor them during the lockdown and make sure they were doing their job, they wouldn’t have been that far behind.” “Kids who didn’t have personal accountability because maybe their parents weren’t at home—they had jobs where they had to go—they’re students further behind.”
Districts, schools and teachers are now tasked with figuring out how to make up for lost time.
She is part of Adam Koehler’s job as assistant principal at his New Orleans middle school.
“I don’t think people realize how hard our teachers are working for our students and families,” he said, “over the past two years, and even today as we try to address these learning disadvantages. trying.”
Kohler said his school is providing tutoring for students in and out of school hours, has created personalized online learning resources that can be used during and after the school day, and even That is also creating an extended “Summer Experience” to close the gap experienced by its students. , many of whom are African American.
However, experts warn that it will not be easy to make up for academic losses.
“Our schools have faced many obstacles over the years,” said Alex Jarrell, chief innovation officer of New Schools in New Orleans, a nonprofit that supports the city’s schools.
“During this pandemic, our students have suffered trauma and loss all around them,” Jarrell said. “Families are struggling for food security and access to housing. All this made it difficult for the children to concentrate on schoolwork. Our teachers and school leaders are working hard to overcome this, but these are the effects we will be addressing over the years.”