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The Great American School Tragedy: The Coronavirus and Students

So while parents are generally satisfied with what schools did under trying and unprecedented circumstances, they have good reason to be worried about the pandemic’s effects on their children’s academic and emotional well-being.”

The world’s school routines of 1.6 billion students and their parents were disrupted by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, with 48 countries not yet reopening schools. In the United States, nearly 52 million public school students and their parents experienced this disruption, provoking a great American school tragedy. 

Surprisingly, nearly 73% of American parents report they are completely or somewhat satisfied with their child’s school and other local schools, just below the 75% historical average. But parents’ reluctance to blame schools for the disruption that families experienced is only part of the story. The other part is that parents are worried about their children’s academic and emotional well-being, leading a significant number of them to exit traditional K-12 district public schools and choose other educational options for their children.

Currently, more than two-thirds (69%) are worried their child is not on track in school, far surpassing the 35% who were concerned pre-pandemic. Their worry is confirmed by recent analyses of student academic achievement before and during the pandemic.

The most recent study is by Harvard University economist Thomas Kane and colleagues at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), using reading and mathematics test score results from 2.1 million students in grades three to eight from 9,692 schools across 49 states (plus Washington, D.C.). They investigated the impact of remote and in-person instruction on widening achievement gaps by race and school poverty. 

That study found remote instruction was associated with widening academic achievement gaps, especially for black and Hispanic students attending high poverty schools. The average student learning remotely 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 seven and ten weeks of in-person instruction. 

Two other current 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 was greater than the learning loss experienced by New Orleans students after schools were closed following Hurricane Katrina.  

One more current study examined the transition from high school to college, analyzing data from 25 states covering 56% of the nation’s schoolchildren. It found a 16% decline in students going from high school to two-year colleges and a 6% decline in those going to four-year colleges. These declines were especially widespread in colleges serving large numbers of minority students.  

The NBER analysis forecasts a gloomy and enduring outcome for the young people who are the pandemic’s educational victims: “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.”

Parents also are now more worried about their child’s mental health and emotional well-being than they were pre-pandemic.

Their worry is well placed.         

Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States, recently issued a 53-page public advisory report on youth mental health. It includes troubling information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mental health visits for children aged five to eleven increased 24% compared to 2019, with visits for 12- to 17-year-olds rising almost 31%.

So while parents are generally satisfied with what schools did under trying and unprecedented circumstances, they have good reason to be worried about the pandemic’s effects on their children’s academic and emotional well-being.  

These effects have led a significant number of parents to vote with their feet. They have moved their children to other educational settings, shrinking public school enrollment since 2020 by almost 1.3 million students (though some decline is from decreasing birth rates and immigration). They have enrolled their children in private and parochial schools, micro-schools, and learning pods, with homeschooling reaching record enrollment levels. 

In particular, large urban districts have been affected by this student exodus, especially districts with long periods of remote-only learning. For example, over the last two years, New York City schools lost around 64,000 students. Los Angeles Unified schools lost around 43,000 students. Chicago schools lost around 25,000. 

Just over 50 years ago economist Albert O. Hirschman in his 1970 book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States described the dynamics of today’s parent response to the pandemic’s K-12 shock. When individuals face decreasing quality or benefit in the services they receive, they respond with either exit or voice, with loyalty affecting that decision. 

Policymakers at different levels have responded to the pandemic’s challenges.  

For example, elected state leaders have expanded current or created new school choice options for families like open enrollment across school district boundaries, vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts. This had produced a more pluralistic K-12 education 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. Some of this money is being used to support different approaches to accelerating student learning, including evidence-based ones like intensive small group tutoring; competency-based programs that develop specific student knowledge and skills; summer school; extra instruction in core subjects; and lengthening the school year. 

Closing schools in response to the pandemic provoked a great American school tragedy, characterized by significant negative academic and mental health effects on young people. The debate about whether these closures were correct or a mistake will continue. But the burden 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 great American school tragedy. 

Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor for the Walton Family Foundation’s education program. He is a former United States Assistant Secretary of Education for Policy. Some of the research described in this piece was supported financially by the Walton Family Foundation.

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