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Back-to-School Season a Reminder of the Continuing Crises in K-12 Education
There are huge, lingering post-COVID challenges in schools across the country.
AS SUMMER BREAK ENDS and children across the United States return to the classroom—with most public K-12 schools reopening their doors by the end of August—it will feel for millions of families like a return to normalcy. But it’s important not to forget that our schools and students are still suffering from the aftereffects of the last few years’ turmoil: the pandemic-induced closures, mask mandates, social distancing, and distance education—resulting in lasting problems that some researchers have taken to calling “education’s long COVID.”
Here are three broad challenges still facing the COVID generation of K-12 students.
Challenge 1: Students are behind academically.
School closures undermined student learning. A July 2023 report from the nonprofit testing company NWEA shows that students in grades 3 to 8 lost ground in reading and math during the 2022–23 school year. On average, they need four more months in school to reach the levels that would have been appropriate for their cohort were it not for the pandemic.
These findings are similar to other analyses, including those from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (often called “the nation’s report card”). During the pandemic, average test scores for 9-year-old students declined five points in reading and seven points in math compared to 2020. This is the largest average decline in reading since 1990 and the first-ever decline in math. Additionally, NAEP’s average U.S. history test results for eighth-grade students show the lowest scores since such history assessments began in 1994, and the first-ever drop in civics scores since that test was initially given in 1998.
“Average” scores, it must be noted, obscure differences across racial, ethnic, and income groups. For example, students from low-income backgrounds or from black and Hispanic communities experienced greater test-score declines. Regrettably, parents’ perceptions of what children are learning after returning to school do not track the reality of learning loss.
Challenge 2: Student mental health has gotten worse.
The statistics regarding the effects of the pandemic on young people’s general well-being are disturbing. According to one analysis, during the period from April to October 2020—when the pandemic was first peaking and widespread closures were underway—“the proportion of mental health–related visits” to emergency departments rose by 24 percent over pre-pandemic levels for children aged 5 to 11, and by 31 percent for children aged 12–17. By April 2022, 70 percent of public schools reported an increase in the percentage of children seeking school mental health services compared to pre-pandemic levels. These disturbing data sit atop a decade-long trend that researchers have been struggling to understand: a divergence between the objective measures of children’s conditions in the United States, which have largely been improving, and the subjective indicators of children’s mental health—their feelings and perceptions—which have been worsening.
Additionally, there is a connection between learning loss and disruptions in community life, including the emotional, psychological, and social experiences of communities. For example, student learning loss was greater in communities where there were higher COVID death rates, where adults reported higher rates of anxiety and depression, and where there were higher levels of disruption to daily routines. Less learning loss occurred in communities with fewer personal strains on parents and teachers, and lighter social restrictions. These were force multipliers for the academic challenges students faced.
Challenge 3: School districts face falling enrollment and—relatedly—fiscal problems.
Since 2020, public school enrollment declined by almost 1.3 million students. (Decreasing birth rates and immigration account for some of this drop.) Large urban districts experienced a particularly significant enrollment decline, especially among the youngest students. But the problem is being acutely felt in small districts too. (A recent New York Times headline about small districts: “Soon We Won’t Have Enough Kids to Fill Our Schools.”) The pandemic saw parents move children to private and parochial schools, and homeschooling reached record levels, with innovative options such as micro-schools and learning pods becoming more popular. But there are also students—hundreds of thousands of them, according to a study published in February—who just dropped off the rolls and never returned; we simply don’t know what they are doing now.
One of the major problems posed by declining student enrollment is the drop it leads to in school funding, which is apportioned based on enrollment. Additionally, inflation increases district costs on all fronts, from food to fuel. Finally, while the federal government stepped in with federal pandemic relief funds, deadlines are coming up or have already passed for designating a purpose for the money. Recipients of the $123 billion made available to public K-12 schools through the American Rescue Plan, for instance, must designate their plans for using those funds by September 2024. These combined factors will produce a significant revenue decrease for school systems in the near future, creating a fiscal cliff.
RESPONSES TO THESE PROBLEMS have not been adequate—largely because of a disconnect between what students need and the remedies school systems have tried to provide.
Additionally, districts are spending the federal $190 billion pandemic relief support at a “snail’s pace.” The 25 largest school districts that used remote learning for at least half the 2020–21 school year spent, on average, only about 15 percent of relief funds from the American Rescue Plan. So recovery efforts, as promising as some might be, face an “urgency gap” with “little evidence of systematic catchup.” This is an especially significant problem given the September 2024 deadline for committing those funds.
It is possible, though, to imagine an agenda that responds to these ongoing problems in K-12 education.
For example, there are programs that accelerate student learning, including evidence-based ones like intensive small-group tutoring; competency-based instruction that moves students forward through the school system on the basis of their knowledge and skills rather than age; summer school; extra instruction in core subjects; lengthening the school year; and offering modest financial incentives to students, parents, and teachers for things like reading books, attending classes, or, in the teacher’s case, achieving learning outcomes in their classes. The key to district implementation success for these programs is strong support from principals and other school leaders, including a school district program manager.
Additionally, elected state leaders have expanded school-choice options or created new ones, including open enrollment across school district boundaries, school vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts. This creates a more pluralistic K-12 system with more educational options for families and students.
As young people return to school, community leaders, advocates, employers, and other education partners must increase the urgency and scope of their response to our continuing pandemic-related education emergency. They should see this as an opportunity for meaningful leadership, for rising to the challenge and mobilizing a recovery effort worthy of our young people. If not, the consequence will be a COVID generation many of whose members will leave the K-12 system without having been adequately prepared to pursue opportunity or to reach their full potential.