In the weeks that passed after the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic on March 11, virtually every school in the United States was shuttered. Seventeen states have ordered school buildings to stay closed through the end of the 2019-2020 academic year and another three recommend it. In either case, it seems highly unlikely that children will return to classrooms any time soon.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in early April that he expects that schools will be able to reopen in the fall—but even then, he says he can’t be sure.
When schools do return, however, experts believe that students will be forced to play catch-up, with potential long term repercussions that may even follow them into adulthood. Hit particularly hard will be the most vulnerable students, including low-income or homeless students who live in poverty-stricken areas, and students with disabilities.
There have been a number of studies conducted throughout the years linking individual student absences to poorer academic results. Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization that covers the effort to improve schools for all children, cited a recent paper that found missing just 10 days of math class in middle or high school led to lower test scores and grades. The outcome lowered high school graduations by six percentage points and college enrollment by five points.
Another 2019 study examined Argentinian teachers’ strikes, which had occurred in the 1980s and 1990s and which resulted in the average student missing nearly 90 school days in the early and middle grades. The study ultimately found that students who had missed school had lower chances of earning a high school diploma or a college degree compared to students in parts of the country that were not affected by strikes.
As adults, the study found that those students were more likely to be unemployed and earned between 2-3% less than their peers—suggesting that, in Argentina’s experience, lengthy school closures can do long-lasting harm.
The drawbacks of online learning
Many classes throughout the country have moved to online learning platforms, which can help keep students engaged but is imperfect and not a replacement for physical classrooms. While some students adapt more easily to distance learning, others struggle to find quiet spaces to study, don’t have adequate internet connection or technological means to connect to virtual classes, or must care for younger siblings while parents are at work.
Michael Casserly—executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a nonprofit coalition of 76 of the nation’s largest urban public school systems—told the Washington Post that the pandemic has provided the “biggest challenge public education has had to face” in more than four decades of his experience. He emphasized that online learning is likely failing many low-income families and that schools won’t have the money to reverse the damage without “substantial” new spending.
“We are facing an educational catastrophe,” Casserly added.
Urban areas are predictably being hit particularly hard, such as in Baltimore, where only one-in-four students attending public schools had access to computers before the coronavirus crisis. While waiting for additional Chromebooks, teachers have taken to reaching families by phone and Instagram. The district is also broadcasting lessons over its television station, but it’s still just not enough.
“What we are providing now is not going to make up fully for all of the time lost,” said Sonja Brookins Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools.
Similar stories are being reported throughout the country. In Philadelphia, public school teachers have even been instructed not to teach any new material due to concerns that lessons “cannot be equitably provided” to all families.
“We’ve been looking for guidance from teachers, but they don’t really know what they’re supposed to be doing,” said one North Philadelphia mother who has two children in public elementary school. “Ever since they’ve been out of school, there’s been no structured virtual learning. It’s just been flying by the seat of their pants.”
Though parents, teachers, and students are in a difficult (and unprecedented) spot, some potential solutions that have been raised would be to install a mandatory summer school (if schools can be open at all by that point) or to open schools early in the fall for the next academic year.
But either way, nearly every student in the U.S. is in a similar predicament, and though there probably will be short-term consequences for missing out on a normal school day, Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, said parents shouldn’t worry too much.
“There will probably be some falling behind, but people are likely to catch up,” Caplan told Reason. “People do get lost over the summer and then make it up. … Many young people who learn the material forget it soon anyway. The idea there’s going to be some noticeable permanent deficit is weak.”