Long-term effects of COVID school shutdowns become apparent as students return to class

The long-term impact of school shutdowns and remote learning during the pandemic is becoming apparent as students return to the classroom. New test results show a significant drop in scores and learning for elementary school-aged children. NPR education reporter Anya Kamenetz joins John Yang to discuss her new book, “The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children's Lives and Where We Go Now.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported, new test results show a significant drop in test scores and learning for elementary school-aged children in the United States.

    The decline in reading and math for 9-year-olds were the largest in several decades. Math scores dropped even more among Black students. And the declines were sharpest among students still struggling with very basic math skills and simple reading.

    This all comes amid great concern about learning loss, what should be done, and how schools and politicians responded.

    John Yang has a conversation about that very issue recorded before these latest numbers were made public.

  • John Yang:

    It has been a long road back for many schools and families since March 2020, when the pandemic shut things down. Most went to remote learning, in some cases for more than a year.

    While some students, teachers and families liked it, many others didn't. And then there were deep divisions over when to fully reopen in person learning.

    Anya Kamenetz, a longtime education reporter for NPR and herself a parent, has chronicled that period and its wider impact in a new book, "The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children's Lives and Where We Go Now."

    Anya, thanks so much for joining us.

    What do we know now? What can we say about the learning loss that students and children experienced during the — during the pandemic?

  • Anya Kamenetz, NPR:

    They're really concerning, especially when you consider that the 2021-2022 school year was not the recovery year that many had hoped. Chronic absenteeism continued, as did shutdowns from Omicron.

    And so the latest numbers suggest that, for elementary school students, it would be three more years at this pace before they would sort of pick up their expected trajectory of math and reading.

    And for middle school students, sadly, the picture is even bleaker. It may take even longer than that.

  • John Yang:

    Is that something that's likely to be with us for a while? You say three more years, but, even beyond that, are there ripple effects from that?

  • Anya Kamenetz:

    Absolutely.

    I mean, we're speaking about averages here, but students are not averages. They're individuals. And, to me, the biggest area of concern is students that disengage and go on the path to dropping out altogether. We have already seen a big downturn in college-going rates.

    In big cities, for example, in Los Angeles, which has been pretty forthcoming about this, they said that they were missing 50,000 students on the first day it held classes. They don't know where many of those kids. Are they enrolled somewhere else, or have they dropped out and gone into paid work? That's the really concerning area to me.

  • John Yang:

    What to do about schools and when to come back was such a contentious issue for so long. Are there — looking back, are there ways this could have been handled better?

  • Anya Kamenetz:

    I was in the privileged position of being an education reporter at the beginning of shutdown, and I knew that the consequences would be really serious even if shutdowns lasted only a few weeks.

    As the year continued, and I saw the lack of leadership for on so many levels, really a full-throated endorsement from the public health authorities on the importance of in person school was not forthcoming. We did see that in other countries. And that's how our peer nations, particularly in Europe, really committed to reopening, despite the fact that they were dealing with surges and waves

    And they reopened schools, in preference to other public accommodations. And, of course, in the U.S., we really took two paths. Red states opened up everything with almost no restrictions. And many blue states actually opened up businesses, bars, restaurants without opening up the schools full-time.

  • John Yang:

    And what was the effect of that?

    I mean, you talk about sort of the red states, blue states, and so much of the pandemic was politically tinged. Talk about how that affected this debate about what to do about schools?

  • Anya Kamenetz:

    Oh, my gosh, I mean, it affected it terribly, because the rhetoric following President Trump was really that we needed to get back to normal and kind of ignore precautions, or that precautions were not important.

    And that did not build a lot of trust. So I personally spoke to teachers in Georgia, in Florida, in Texas who were terrified about going back to school without precautions in place. On the other side of things in blue states, it seemed like, almost in reaction to that, there formed this attitude that we should have zero COVID before we go back to school.

    And that really led to, I think, terribly detrimental impacts on children as the pandemic dragged on. And so it just seemed harder and harder to understand why schools will be subject to restrictions that were not seen in other parts of society.

  • John Yang:

    And another sort of thing that was accentuated during the pandemic was the — was inequality.

    How did the differences in race and socioeconomic status, in geography — you talked about the red states, blue states — but how did that affect students and their experiences in the pandemic?

  • Anya Kamenetz:

    John, this started the day that schools shut down, because the school food program is the second largest public food program in the country. It feeds 30 million kids.

    And when it switched to handing out sandwiches in parking lots, a lot of kids went hungry. In fact, hunger soared to levels that researchers told me were unprecedented in modern times in the very quick weeks right after the school shutdowns.

    As it dragged on, what we saw was that communities of color, Black and Hispanic and Asian American communities, were more cautious about the virus. They suffered more deaths from the virus because they had essential workers in their households. They had intergenerational households.

    And that Fed into a sense of generally mistrust and oftentimes an unwillingness to come back to school in person. And so that led to disparities in who actually had access to and confidence in, in person learning.

  • John Yang:

    Anya, you're from New Orleans, I believe. You covered Hurricane Katrina.

    Are there any parallels between what happened to schoolchildren and the effects of Hurricane Katrina and the pandemic?

  • Anya Kamenetz:

    Yes, this is a situation that I have looked at for parallels.

    When you think about school shutdowns in the modern era, we're talking about epidemics, natural disasters and civil wars. And in the United States, the only modern-day analog is really, I believe, the hurricane in 2005 that closed public schools in that city for almost a full semester.

    And what I learned from following is that the impact on those children, in learning, they caught up in a couple of years, those who re-enrolled in the city of New Orleans. But in trauma in their life trajectory, you can see the impact on high school graduation and college-going rates 10 years afterwards.

  • John Yang:

    For this book, Anya, you followed some individual families across the country.

    What stands out to you from your reporting?

  • Anya Kamenetz:

    So, there were so many different paths that families followed even within the same family.

    And a child that I think about a lot is — was 7 years old when the pandemic hit, and he is the middle child of eight siblings growing up in St. Louis. And when schools and day cares closed, his mother had to go to her essential job and oftentimes lock the door on the kids.

    And, one day, he got out, and he climbed into the window of an abandoned house nearby, and was shot in the leg by a young man who was inside. And, thankfully, he recovered. But there are so many children whose stories we may not even know because they were not seen and they were unsafe during the pandemic school closures.

  • John Yang:

    The book is "The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children's Lives and Where We Go Now," the author Anya Kamenetz.

    Thank you very much, Anya.

  • Anya Kamenetz:

    Thank you so much.

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