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What impact is ‘the COVID slide’ having on students?

The questions around when to re-open more schools for in-person classes remains front and center for millions of Americans. Data show about 42 percent of all students between kindergarten and high school are in virtual-only schooling right now. Christopher Morphew, dean of the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, joins Stephanie Sy to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The questions around when to reopen more schools for in person classes remains front and center for millions of Americans. Data show about 42 percent of all students between kindergarten and high school are in virtual-only schooling right now.

    As we reported, there was more fuel for the debates around this today when CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said there's growing evidence that schools can reopen safely. And she said that's even before all teachers can be vaccinated.

    Stephanie Sy has our conversation again tonight.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, teachers and school staff say they need enough protective gear and safety measures in place before they return to in person school. They also want more access to the COVID vaccine.

    Only about half of states are specifically prioritizing teachers as an eligible group for vaccines right now, although teachers may still qualify because of their age or medical conditions.

    Last night, we heard from the head of the largest teachers union.

    Now, for a different perspective, I'm joined by Christopher Morphew, dean of the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University.

    Dr. Morphew, thank you so much for joining us on the "NewsHour."

    There are K-12-age students that have not been in, in person school since last March. How much learning has been lost?

  • Christopher Morphew:

    Well, first of all, thanks for inviting me, Stephanie. I really appreciate being here.

    You know, we're starting to see some evidence around a learning loss, and it looks pretty darn significant. Last June, a colleague and I, Josh Sharfstein here at Hopkins, wrote a piece in "JAMA."

    And we were at that time talking about what we had — and others were calling the COVID slide, which was our prediction about what would happen as a result of closing schools during the pandemic, and we were predicting something that looked like a nine-to-10-month summer melt in students.

    And the early findings we're seeing from studies are substantiating just that. We're seeing evidence right now of students falling behind. And, most importantly, we're seeing lots of evidence of the students who are most at risk and who entered into the pandemic and entered into the schools' closures behind falling further and further behind.

    So we're seeing evidence and data now that suggests we're looking at students who were behind losing another nine to 11 months. And these are students who entered into the pandemic, as I said, maybe one or two years already behind their peers in terms of learning.

    So, it's those most at-risk students that we're primarily concerned about here as a result of the closure. But we're seeing general agreement from teachers, parents, and students that remote learning is not as high-quality as the learning that had been taking place beforehand.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But the loss goes beyond academics, doesn't it?

    Your Web site says these same disadvantaged groups you're talking about, students of color, low-income families, have — quote — "faced compounded threats" to their physical, emotional, and educational well-being, that, for them, the most is at stake.

  • Christopher Morphew:

    Yes, what we're seeing now, I think one study I was just reading described it as a collective trauma that students are experiencing.

    You know, I have two students in K-12 schools, and I'm seeing some of the mental health effects that other parents are seeing. And, again, we're starting to see from descriptive studies and national polls that, you know, 30 percent or more of parents are reporting significant mental health — significant changes in mental health.

    So that's greatly concerning. Findings suggest that, as I said, students are experiencing the sort of collective trauma that is likely to have long-lasting impacts well past the pandemic.

    And one of the things that we're concerned about here at Hopkins is looking at the cases of abuse that are going undiscovered as a result of schools being closed. Schools are a primary and essential piece for identifying evidence of abuse. And what we're really concerned about is that the pandemic is very likely exacerbating this in communities and homes around the country.

    But students aren't in schools, so we weren't seeing the effects of this the way that counselors and teachers and school leaders have been trained to identify. So, we're concerned about that as well.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So, the priority, it sounds like, should be getting all kids back to in person learning.

    And you now have the new head of the CDC saying that this can be done safely even without all teachers getting vaccinated. But you have major unions in big districts disagreeing with that.

    What's the best path out of that impasse?

  • Christopher Morphew:

    I think it's realizing that vaccines are only one part of this.

    We know that — we know a lot more about the virus. We know a lot more about how to reopen schools safely than we did nine months ago, and we need to take all of that into consideration even beyond vaccines. The federal government really needs to think innovatively and act big when it comes to reopening schools.

    And that means stepping in, and making sure districts have the resources they need to provide PPE, to engage in the asymptomatic testing that we now have at hand. They need to think innovatively about summer to step in and to act to sure that our children, and particularly our at-risk children, don't experience the kind of COVID slide and the nine to 10 months of summer melt that we were just talking about in terms of learning loss.

    The federal government really has an opportunity here for its rhetoric to be matched by action.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Christopher Morphew, the dean of the school of education at Johns Hopkins, thank you so much.

  • Christopher Morphew:

    Thanks, Stephanie.

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