COVID undermined students’ well-being more than we thought

a girl watches her teacher on a laptop
Studies show that remote online instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with growing achievement gaps among students.

“The COVID cult did lasting damage to our kids,” writes the journalist Alex Gutentag. “As a result, the United States is now faced with an academic, social, and psychological disaster that will reverberate through society for years, if not decades, to come.”

Parents know this is true. For example, polling from Echelon Insights reports more than two-thirds (69 percent) of them say they’re worried their child isn’t on track in school — nearly twice as many as the 35 percent who were concerned about that pre-pandemic — and nearly two-thirds (64 percent) also worry about their child’s mental health.

We have evidence that confirms these fears. Harvard economist Thomas Kane and colleagues at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) used reading and mathematics test scores from 2.1 million students, grades three to eight, in 9,692 schools across 49 states (plus D.C.) to study the impact of remote and in-person instruction on academic achievement by race and school poverty.

Remote online instruction was associated with growing achievement gaps, especially for Black and Hispanic students attending high-poverty schools. The average student learning by remote instruction lost the equivalent of 13 weeks of in-person instruction, reaching 22 weeks for students in high-poverty schools. The average student in reopened schools lost between 7 and 10 weeks of in-person instruction.

Two other studies reached similar conclusions. One found that reading and mathematics pass rates declined from pre-pandemic years, with declines larger in school districts with less in-person instruction. Another found pandemic learning loss greater than the learning loss experienced by New Orleans students after schools closed following Hurricane Katrina.

These studies are consistent with research by Margery Smelkinson, staff scientist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who studied learning loss during periods of flooding in Thailand, during teacher strikes in Argentina, and on snow days pre-pandemic.  

Another study found a 16 percent decline in students going from high school to two-year colleges and a 6 percent decline in those going to four-year colleges, especially widespread for colleges serving large numbers of minority students. 

Harvard’s Kane forecasts a gloomy result for young people: “If the achievement losses become permanent, there will be major implications for future earnings, racial equity and income inequality, especially in states where remote instruction was common.”

The pandemic also affected mental health in young people. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a 53-page public advisory that includes troubling information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Mental health visits for children ages 5-11 increased 24 percent compared to 2019, and visits for 12- to 17-year-olds rose almost 31 percent.

The National Center for Education Statistics also reports that since the start of the pandemic, 70 percent of public schools experienced an increase in the number of children seeking school mental health services, and 76 percent of school staff voiced concerns about students showing signs of depression, anxiety and trauma.

These effects have led parents to vote with their feet. They’ve moved their children to new educational settings, shrinking public school enrollment since 2020 by almost 1.3 million students (though some decline is from decreasing birth rates and immigration).

In particular, large urban districts experienced this exodus, especially those with lengthy periods of remote-only learning. For example, over the past two years, New York City schools lost around 64,000 students; Los Angeles Unified, around 43,000 students; and Chicago, around 25,000 students.

Policymakers are responding to these challenges. For example, elected state leaders have expanded or created school choice options for families, such as open enrollment across school district boundaries, vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and education savings accounts. This has produced a more pluralistic K-12 system, with more educational options for families and students.

Another example is how state and local school district leaders are using the $190 billion in federal pandemic education funding. Money is being used to implement programs that accelerate student learning, including evidence-based ones such as intensive small group tutoring; competency-based instruction that develops specific student knowledge and skills; summer school; extra instruction in core subjects; and to lengthen the school year.

And NBER and Harvard economist Roland Fryer provides evidence that modest financial incentives and other rewards to students, parents and teachers can boost student achievement. 

School closures produced an education and mental health crisis for young people. The debate about whether closures were correct or a mistake will continue, but the weight is now on K-12 stakeholders in every community to do whatever it takes to support families and students in their efforts to overcome this calamity.

Bruno V. Manno, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, is senior adviser to the Walton Family Foundation’s education program. Some of the research described in this piece was supported financially by the foundation.

Tags Achievement gaps COVID-19 pandemic Education Remote learning School choice

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