With recent passage of the latest coronavirus relief bill, Congress has thrown more than $5 trillion of mostly borrowed money at the economic, social and medical wreckage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Notwithstanding the legitimate concerns about paying back that money some day, there’s a lot of recovery such enormous sums can buy.
One thing, though, they are unlikely to repair is the learning deficit caused by the bulk of students across the country being out of classrooms for the past year.
Teachers in public schools, where resistance to in-person instruction has been the greatest and where the majority of students are enrolled, have tried their best to compensate. But the research — not to mention the anecdotal evidence — is clearly showing that much ground has been lost, particularly for those in the lower grades, for whom there is no good substitute to hands-on learning.
A recent comprehensive report by USA Today took a look at how the pandemic has impacted the ability of school-age children to master reading, the most fundamental building block for all of education.
The reporters cited a midyear analysis of the DIBELS early reading assessment. The statistical sample of about 400,000 students in more than 1,400 schools from 41 states found that half of the students tested in kindergarten and first grade scored in the lowest category for early literacy skills. That was two-thirds more than had struggled this badly in these grades prior to the pandemic. The decline was particularly pronounced for Black students, with twice as many Black kindergartners considered at greater risk of not learning to read during the pandemic than before it.
The findings are credible. From the start of distance learning, it was obvious that the younger the student, the less likely that it would be a satisfactory alternative. It put a greater onus on parents to get the material and skills across. Many were not equipped to do that, either because they had jobs to go to, or other children to care for, or were themselves weak readers.
And this is not the only subject area or age group where there are going to be issues. We would be surprised if there is any subject or any grade level where an objective measure of academic performance will not show a decline. It will be a matter of degree.
As schools hopefully move back toward normalcy over the next six months or so, there is going to be a lot of catch-up to do. To make that happen will require a commitment of schools, students and parents — and their communities.
School days and school years may have to be lengthened. Class sizes may need to be reduced, so as to enable more one-on-one instruction. That’s going to be not only expensive but difficult, with certified teachers already in short supply.
It’s going to be a huge challenge, but what’s at stake is also of great magnitude. This country is not just looking at a lost year. It could be looking at a lost generation if it doesn’t remediate the academic damage that COVID-19 has done.
— From The Greenwood Commonwealth