How Has the Pandemic Affected Learning Outcomes?
The 2020-21 academic year was like no other. Now that the school year has passed, we have some early data to assess the impact of the pandemic on learning outcomes.
What happened, and where do we go from here?
Let’s start with learning outcomes during the pandemic.
Nationwide Drop in School Attendance, Especially among Youngest Students
NCES, the National Center for Education Statistics, reports that nationwide there was a steep 13% drop in public school enrollment for children Pre-K and kindergarten students. Grades 1 – 8 saw a 3% decrease. Grades 9 – 12 held steady, with a 0.4% increase.
High school dropout rates are not yet available, but education analysts expect to find huge increases in dropout rates as well as chronic absences. And a recent McKinsey study estimates that there might be an extra 2.3 – 4.6 million 8 – 12 graders absent from school during the pandemic.
The pandemic may also impact college attendance rates in the future, especially among rural students, where college applications have dropped by 18%. The same McKenzie report estimates that 26% of low-income students have abandoned their plans for attending college.
Three-Quarters of K-12 Students Received In-Person Instruction
The number of primary school students attending virtual classrooms may be lower than we think.
According to data aggregator Burbio, only 2% of US K-12 students received exclusive “virtual-only” instruction during the 2020-21 academic year; while 28% attended “hybrid” schools, and 70% attended in-person classrooms.
On the other hand, 84% of college students received some of their instruction online, according to the NCES.
Postsecondary school students also saw significant turmoil during the 2020-21 academic year. 40% had financial disruptions (29% lost a job or income), and 28% had to change housing.
Difficulties in Performing Formative and Summative Assessments
Distance and hybrid learning has not only disrupted student curriculum and teaching methods, it also disrupted how teachers and schools perform formative and summative assessments.
Many school districts dropped their requirements for students to take standardized tests due to the risk of bringing large numbers of students together in one place.
The pandemic may also be the death knell for traditional college admissions exams, as more institutions dropped the requirement for SAT (or ACT) college applications, spurring a boom in applications to top-name schools. (Unfortunately, many scholarship applications still rely on these tests, putting financial assistance for students who cannot take these tests in person at risk.)
Academic Achievement Studies Highlight “Learning Loss” during the Pandemic
According to symposium panel hosted by CRPE (Center on Reinventing Public Education), it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how much of a “learning loss” but the “the evidence suggests students tested in the 2020–21 school year lagged pre-pandemic expectations by an amount roughly equivalent to several months of learning in a typical year.”
This figure correlates well with the McKinsey study mentioned earlier, which projects that by the end of the 2020-21 school year, students were (on average) five months behind in math and four months behind in reading.
Students from lower-income families (particularly with parents with less education and/or full-time jobs) fared poorly compared to those from wealthier backgrounds (especially those attending private schools).
Reading and math achievement dropped significantly during the 2021-21 school year, particularly among elementary grade students in American Indian, Alaska Native (AIAN), Black, and Latino communities, as well among those attending high-poverty schools, according to a report from the Center for School and Student Progress.
Course failure rates increased overall, particularly among low-income households and students of color.
On the other hand, distance learning has delivered some unexpected positive results as well.
For example, some special needs students seem to have benefited from distance learning, including those with disability/mobility issues or social interaction issues, such as certain students on the autism spectrum.
Education Strategies to Address Learning Loss due to the Pandemic
Schools are seeking ways to help students “catch up” by coming up with creative solutions that go beyond the traditional “credit recovery” strategy used prior to the pandemic.
Some of the strategies that school districts are pursuing include launching new tutoring programs (in some cases by partnering with private companies); extending the academic school year; encouraging students to read materials at their expected grade level; partnering with community organizations who can provide additional education resources; and asking parents to help boost literacy activities at home.
The Effect of the Pandemic on Teachers, Students, and Families
Parents of school-aged children talk about Zoom fatigue and Zoom burnout.
But is Zoom burnout real?
According to a major study by Microsoft, looking at a screen for hours at a time (such as on a Zoom call) does increase fatigue and stress.
Researchers at Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab used EEG Caps on 14 volunteers to measure beta wave activity (associated with stress) and found that the longer you stay focused on a screen, the higher the levels of stress.
One solution is to take regular breaks (to allow time to recover) and avoid back-to-back virtual meetings. You can also switch to audio calls or email correspondence where possible (it’s less stressful), as well as avoid multi-tasking.
Socialization and Emotional Development
But for parents of young children participating in online learning at home, the term Zoom fatigue encompasses more than just managing screen time – kids need to be supervised, fed meals, and often separated from one another to keep the peace.
This is a burden that, according to a Brookings Institution report, disproportionally falls on mothers. Another study estimates that mothers with young children have had to reduce their work hours four to five times more than fathers during the pandemic.
But is it working?
A majority of parents don’t think so.
According to a Harvard University Early Learning Study, 58% of parents report that their child’s academic development has been negatively impacted by the pandemic – and 61% believe their child’s social-emotional development has also been negatively impacted.
Mental health issues are also on the minds of parents.
In a recent survey of over 16,000 parents across the US, McKinsey found that 35 percent of parents said they were very or extremely concerned about their child’s mental health.
In many cases, younger children have to deal with grief and loss due to illness or even death among family members, friends, or classmates.
In December, the CDC reported a dramatic increase in emergency pediatric mental health visits at Emergency Departments. Compared with 2019, the proportion of mental health–related visits for children aged 5–11 rose 24%, while among 12–17 year olds, it increased approximately 31%.
Can Parents Safely Send their Kids Back to School?
While back in the Spring, it seemed we’d have a normal start to the 2021-22 school year –thanks to the availability of Covid vaccines – but major new issues have arisen – making a return to pre-pandemic normality more doubtful in the short term.
Parents have to consider a whole new set of risk factors when deciding if it’s safe for their kids to return to in-person education:
Younger Ages More Affected by Delta Variant of the Covid Virus
Prior to the arrival of the Delta variant, the commonly held assumption was that Covid did not generally affect young children and adults, and if they got sick, the cases were mild and often asymptomatic.
The Delta variant has changed that calculation.
The Wall Street Journal reports that, after a decrease in early summer, there has been a 400% increase in childhood Covid cases over the past month, rising from about 38,000 cases the week of July 22 to 180,000 cases the week of August 20, 2021.
Speaking to the New York Times podcast, The Daily, health and science reporter Emily Anthes reports that while the number of childhood cases is up, most are cases are asymptomatic.
According to Anthes, around 1 in 1,000 children acquiring the disease require hospitalization, and among those hospitalized, around 1 in 10,000 of these childhood cases result in mortalities.
Of course, any death is a tragedy, but Anthes says that parents need to weigh their options and decide what is their highest priority for their family.
For example, if there is a vulnerable family member at home, then distance learning might be the best choice to protect that family member. This includes expectant mothers or those planning a pregnancy, as Covid can lead to birth complications.
On the other hand, parents may decide that their bigger risk is a child falling behind in grade-level achievement is greater than the risk of attending in-person learning – with the caveat that the school follows good Covid hygiene practices (discussed below).
Pfizer Vaccine Approved by FDA
This week the US FDA officially approved the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine for use among individuals 16 years of age and older. (The vaccine will be marketed under the name Comirnaty.)
This is certainly good news for parents of college students and adolescents in their late teens. Official approval will also (hopefully) help spur vaccine-hesitant adults to get vaccinated and may offer cover for employers, schools, and government agencies to move forward with vaccine mandates.
But where does that leave younger students?
The Pfizer vaccine is still available to children ages 12-15 under an FDA Emergency Use Authorization issued in May 2021.
More testing is needed for young people, particularly young men, after reports that a very small percentage (thought to be 1 in 42,000) of individuals experienced myocarditis or swelling of the heart muscle.
Given the need for more testing, it’s thought that vaccine approval for younger adults will take several more months and might not be until early 2022, which adds to the stress of parents looking for immediate solutions.
Mask and Vaccination Controversies
Also adding to the stress facing parents is the escalation of political – and now physical –
fights over mask wearing and vaccination policies at schools.
County board meeting erupts in fisticuffs during a debate on school masks.
School boards in Texas and Florida are at loggerhead with their respective state governors who have issued state-wide bans over mask mandates at schools. The governors are threatening to cut off salaries to local school officials who mandate masks. In Texas, some school districts have sought to get around this by making masks part of school uniform regulations. And the Federal government is stepping in, offering to compensate any local official whose salary is cut by the state.
None of this helps build confidence in attending public schools.
There is also a wide disparity in vaccination policies, with some states, such as Oregon, making it mandatory for Oregon teachers to be vaccinated.
Now that the FDA has approved the Pfizer vaccine Comirnaty, it stands to reason that more school districts and educational institutions will also require teachers, staff, and in some cases, students to get vaccinated.
Covid Hygiene Checklist for Safe Schools
Will the majority of students return to in-person teaching this fall?
Decisions are being made now, with some schools, such as Rice University, delaying the return of students to campus and returning to online instruction.
However, if schools are careful and follow these Covid hygiene checklist guidelines, they can help make their facilities much safer for students:
A universal mask policy helps reduce Covid transmission, which is very important in preventing the highly transmissible Delta variant from taking hold. (Even vaccinated individuals can have an asymptomatic case and spread the disease; masking helps prevent this.)
Covid testing is another strategy to prevent the spread of the disease. Currently, it’s thought that tens of thousands of US students are quarantining/isolating to prevent the spread of Covid. This is actually good news; it helps contain the spread of the virus.
Schools need to continue to keep students spaced further apart and avoid excessive crowding.
Fortunately, Federal emergency funding can help.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan approved by Congress and signed into law in March provides an unprecedented $130 billion of federal aid for K-12 education.
Enhanced ventilation is also an important defense against the spread of Covid. In moderate climates, opening the windows for cross ventilation may be part of the solution; in other regions, the HVAC system may need to be upgraded and/or operated at maximum flow settings to increase the airflow in classrooms and hallways.
Finally, as mentioned above, vaccinations of older students, teachers, staff, and parents will help control the virus.
Alternatives to In-Person Schooling
If we can’t return to full-time in-person learning, what are the alternatives?
Return to Distance Learning
The obvious choice is a return to distance learning, and some schools will be offering this option this coming academic year.
But many states have elected not to fund these programs, which limits the ability of public schools to offer distance learning.
Hybrid schooling is another viable option. By limiting the number of in-person teaching days, the risk of Covid infection goes down.
It’s also possible for schools to institute a “bubble” policy that was in widespread usage last year, whereby students are kept in isolated groups to avoid “cross-contamination” with other groups of students.
For many parents, especially those frustrated by mask policies (whether it be for masks or against them!), the choice of homeschooling has become more popular.
According to the US Census, last year, homeschooling increased from 5.4% of school-aged children to 11.1% — in other words, homeschooling essentially doubled during the pandemic.
However, it’s not easy for parents who may not be academically qualified or lack the time and resources to act as a teacher for their kids.
Consequently, some parents are turning to homeschool organizations for resources and assistance, while others are creating local “pandemic pods” where students study together in a group, where they maintain a protective “bubble.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
“When will things return to normal?” is the top question on the minds of parents, teachers, and school administrators.
The official approval of the Pfizer vaccine is a major milestone (albeit only for those 16 and up), and approvals for Moderna and other vaccines are sure to follow soon.
Can we turn the corner by increasing the vaccination levels in this country – and wearing masks when in public to reduce the spread of the virus in the meantime?
Unfortunately, the early optimism that we could eradicate Covid forever is dissipating, but there is hope things could be better by early 2022 if we all work together.
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