Grappling with the Long-Term Effects of the Pandemic on U.S. School Children
Sarah Mancoll, SPSSI Policy Director
COVID-19 has upended the way we live and exacerbated existing inequalities. For children, and the caregivers of children, the jolt has been especially hard felt. As reported recently in the Washington Post, the lack of a cohesive federal response and a dearth of data have combined to leave local policymakers (e.g., governors, state departments of education, superintendents, and school boards) and parents in the dark when it comes to whether K-12 students can safely return to schools for in-person learning.
Ten months into the pandemic that shut schools across the United States, we have seen enrollment numbers sharply drop. According to an October 2020 report from Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit, for “approximately three million of the most educationally marginalized students in the country, March might have been the last time they experienced any formal education—virtual or in-person.” In Washington, DC, for example, “back-to-school family surveys found that 60% of students lacked the devices and 27% lacked the high-speed internet access needed to successfully participate in virtual school.”
A July 2020 National Academies consensus study report entitled “Reopening K-12 Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Prioritizing Health, Equity, and Communities” also emphasizes that keeping schools closed to in-person learning poses potential educational risks: “Students of all ages benefit from in-person learning experiences in ways that cannot be fully replicated through distance learning. The educational risks of extended distance learning may be higher for young children and children with disabilities. In addition, without careful implementation, virtual learning alone runs the risk of exacerbating disparities in access to high quality education across different demographic groups and communities.”
At the same time, there is real worry that some policymakers are pressing for schools to reopen without taking into account the potential dangers posed by in-person schooling. This was seen in the summer of 2020, when the U.S. Secretary of Education defended the President’s aggressive push to reopen schools in the fall amid the worsening pandemic. This was also seen more recently when Republican Members of Congress issued a letter to the Government Accountability Office requesting a report on how states and school districts have used federal CARES Act funding to reopen elementary and secondary schools.
Here in the early days of 2021, we are in the midst of a vaccine rollout but have barely begun to grapple with the longer-term ramifications of the pandemic for school-aged children. As reporter Erin Einhorn recently wrote for NBC News, the pandemic has “taken an unthinkable toll on children—a social, emotional and academic ordeal so extreme that some advocates and experts warn its repercussions could rival those of a hurricane or other disaster.” In the article, Billy Shore, the Executive Director of Share Our Strength, an organization that works to end hunger, argues that “we’re going to almost need a New Deal for an entire generation of kids to give them the opportunity to catch up.” With a new Congress and a new President about to take the helm, this call to action could not be timelier.