The coronavirus has upended life for all of us, but our children bear the burdens in lost learning and social skills that will be felt for decades to come. Despite this crisis, policymakers have largely failed to develop a coherent response and fund the resources necessary to stem all these losses. Even before the pandemic, federal investments in our children were less than 2 percent of gross domestic product. Today, such needs are even greater. A generation of young Americans are at risk of losing chances to be educated and productive adults in our society.
Researchers have charted the dimensions of the current shortfall. For education, the coronavirus has an estimated impact of one year in lost learning in lower grades, with even greater losses among lower income children. This does not include what will happen if part or all of the new school year is again lost. With children likely to be last in line for federal action, even a vaccine will not be a remedy in the near term.
Learning loss is just one of the harmful effects of the pandemic. At home, many children face increasing rates of adversity with economic hardship, food insecurity, family illness, and abuse or neglect, while lacking the safe haven of school. Trauma and toxic stress from these adverse experiences have deleterious effects on their learning and behavior. Missing school is associated with worsened health and education outcomes, which could lead to income inequality and stagnating economic growth.
These harms are not the same for all. Given the effects of the pandemic on minority communities and systemic racism, children of color are going to be much more likely to face greater adversity and lasting impacts. Many families are struggling to manage remote learning, do not have access to reliable internet, and may be forced to withdraw their children from public school altogether. Further, many students need to care for their siblings or work. All of this will have cascading effects on their futures.
With families having to balance tight budgets to meet basic needs, work while caring for and teaching their children, and handle their own stress, parents are stretched to the breaking point, with no end in sight. Today, we owe our children concerted efforts to mitigate these harms. Experts have set forth creative solutions for getting children back to school and providing them with the mental health and other services they may need, most of which will take careful plans and more resources.
We need to create a federal task force to assess the barriers that families and communities face and will continue to confront even after the current pandemic recedes, and ensure that all families have the critical resources they need to keep their children safer and educated. When schools open, careful plans will be central to helping teachers and students navigate the disparities in the gaps created by months of remote learning.
Cities and states have tight budgets and cannot run efforts alone to open schools, so federal action is critical. The Heroes Act, passed in the House this spring, would provide necessary relief. Yet neither the Senate nor the administration is taking such action to ensure that families and children have what they need. With the worst national health crisis since 1918 and the worst economic conditions since 1933, it has been six months since a bipartisan relief bill was sent to the desk of the president.
It has been decades since the United States was a leader in the education of its children. But with careful plans and investments, we can rebuild the powerful engine to fuel our economic growth. It is time to turn attention to our youngest citizens. In the debates, both candidates should address how they will confront the devastating effects of the coronavirus on our children and ensure the success of the next generation. As a country, we must hold our elected leaders accountable for protecting the lives of all Americans, especially those children with the most to lose.
Taryn Morrissey is an associate professor for public policy with American University and a former health policy adviser in the United States Senate.