Apart from its toll on lives and the economy, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacted a toll on children’s mental and emotional well-being and their educational attainment.
It has also exacted a toll on public schools as institutions, and perhaps revealed a flaw in how the U.S. and most of the world goes about educating our young people.
Some of the first standardized test scores taken during the pandemic are in, and the results are not good.
“Texas education officials offered a grim report Monday as the state became one of the first to release full results from its spring exams,” The Associated Press reported. “The percentage of students reading at their grade level slid to the lowest levels since 2017, while math scores plummeted to their lowest point since 2013. In total, about 800,000 additional students are now behind their grade level in math, the state said.”
Texas’ education commissioner said, “It will take several years of change and support in order to help kids catch up.”
We have heard much about “learning loss” during the pandemic — students forgetting what they have learned because of prolonged periods outside the classroom or not truly grasping what they are taught in the first place because of the chaos and unfamiliarity of virtual or mixed instruction.
Meanwhile, across the country, especially in states that instituted more strict lockdowns than Alabama did, parents talk about the emotional stress on their children, many of whom feel isolated, miss their friends and are often acting out as a result. Humans are social animals, and few are so introverted they thrive in pandemic isolation, especially when they’re developing children.
Teachers are under stress, too. According to Alabama’s Teacher Retirement System figures, Alabama public school employees are retiring at the highest level in a decade, which Roanoke City Schools Superintendent Chuck Marcum attributes to pandemic-related stress.
All of this is driving many parents to abandon public schools entirely.
U.S. Census Bureau data indicates that homeschooling has nearly doubled during the pandemic. In Alabama, at the end of the 2019-20 school year, 5% of families homeschooled. At the start of the 2020-21 school year, that percentage swelled to 12%. Many of those families say they will not return to public schools.
And it’s not just public schools that are seeing a decline in enrollment.
More than 200 Catholic schools closed permanently during the pandemic, according to the National Catholic Educational Association, while enrollment at the remaining schools fell by 6.4%, or more than 111,000 students.
The pivot to homeschooling is one way to combat learning loss, by seeing that children’s education isn’t interrupted and tailoring it to each child’s interests, so that they better retain what they learn. If, after all, learning loss is a major problem requiring years to correct from just one or two interrupted school years, how quickly does a high school diploma depreciate the moment a graduate walks off the stage?
But homeschooling isn’t an option for most parents, so it falls on public schools to do the job, and to find better ways to help students retain what they learn. That requires resources, but it also may mean new approaches to learning. Athens City Schools, for example, is experimenting with a different educational focus at each of its elementary schools: computer science at one, fine arts at another and so on, and lessons in all subjects relate to the particular school’s focus. It’s a work in progress, but it’s the sort of innovation that may hold the key to seeing that students one day not only graduate college or career ready, but retain what they’ve learned for a lifetime.
That is how we get the educated public that’s necessary for a functioning democracy.