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What Our Children Missed

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Considering the Enduring Effects of Learning Loss and COVID-19 on Black Students and Families

The term “learning loss” seeks to capture a phenomenon where a disruption of any kind causes a student to regress in their academic skills and knowledge. A disruption can be the summer break, for example, and if a child is not actively engaging in learning, they can experience learning loss. But there are other more serious instances when a student is unable to go to school for reasons beyond their control, that often results in the stunting of their academic growth. Learning loss has critical consequences ranging from challenged self esteem and decline in academic, social and competitive interest in the short term; to serious long term effects that points to their overall productivity and wellbeing in the future. 

Learning loss impacts individual students, groups and entire school systems; seemingly a surface-level problem. But looking deeper, something else is happening. Certain places throughout our country have had to deal with the aftermath of learning loss on municipal and statewide levels as a result of natural disasters – take Louisiana and Hurricane Katrina, as a prime example or Jackson, Mississippi during the water crisis. According to the Louisiana State University Special Collections Research Guide, Hurricane Katrina displaced between 100 and 200 thousand students; causing the lower-income students to spend months, even years out of school as they struggled to find housing in or outside of New Orleans. That amount of missed school days accounts for the large population of young adults without diplomas or consistent employment today.1

Paul T. Hill, the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and Emeritus Professor at the University of Washington Bothell, whose current work focuses on education reform, sought to glean key takeaways from Hurricane Katrina’s impact on children and school closures, for the benefit of educators and school systems post COVID-19. He found, in part, that:

  • Kids came back on average more than two years below grade level, some much more. 
  • The degree of learning loss couldn’t be predicted by family income, prior school, student age, or pre-Katrina grade level. 
  • Since kids trickled back to New Orleans over a long period of time, schools could never stop assessing and adjusting to learning loss. It often took multiple years of individualized attention to resolve the largest learning losses.

He included one school head’s interesting takeaway, “A big trauma like Katrina can have effects for decades. Learning losses don’t just disappear with one course or in one academic year. For schools, the need to keep track of where every child is, and to work constantly on helping everyone move along, is permanent, not short-term.” 2

This isn’t just a “them” problem, it’s an “our” problem because learning loss directly impacts our children’s suitability as contributing citizens in our community and our world. We’re talking about their ability to gainfully and positively contribute to their own lives; their own wellbeing. We’re talking about their ability to make our world a better place. It’s impossible to do when these traumatic events hinder their progress. The pandemic left very limited choices for educators to effectively work with children the way they wanted to. The most vulnerable of these students had to forgo stretches of critical instructional periods or to suddenly take on haphazard remote learning programs to continue learning. While there were some success stories, the reality was that the weight of the pandemic on our education system nationwide, posed more challenges for our children, parents and educators, than solutions. Not only did missed in-school and remote-learning days contribute to learning loss, school districts grappled with two other major, uncontrollable factors that made the limitations on learning even more of a challenge: 1) digital accessibility and 2) lack of home support. These challenges were real, widespread and could not be easily solved. In Washington, DC, the challenge of digital accessibility, like many other cities and rural communities with high Black populations, earning low to middle incomes, struggled to obtain laptops and internet service in households that had school-aged children. 3

The lack of home support in both single and dual-parent homes could not accommodate the daily hands-on assistance their children needed during their remote learning journey. According to the Pew Research Center, this challenge was greater for certain parent groups: lower to middle incomes (36% and 29%, respectively) were more likely to report that at-home student support was very or somewhat difficult, compared with just 18% of parents with higher incomes. 4 

Photo Credit: New York Times

Think About This 

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defined complex trauma as exposure to multiple interpersonal traumatic events, over a prolonged period of time, with the potential for major long-term developmental impacts on victims, both physically and mentally. 

Do you know what the greatest invisible and enduring impact of learning loss is? Trauma. For the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically for children, the abrupt change in home/school life routine along with inadequate mental health support for both parents and students produced a level of trauma that we are still working to comprehensively measure. 

The trauma associated with learning loss must be addressed and vigorous action taken to reverse its effects according to Nobel Prize laureate Abhijit Banerjee. He wrote, “Learning losses due to school closures are one of the biggest global threats…The evidence tells us that steps need to be taken in reintegrating children back into the school system.” He is one of the fifteen education experts from around the world who produced the second annual GEAAP (Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel) report. From an economic perspective, “The cost of lost learning from the crisis will be severe. A recent estimation predicts a $17 trillion loss in lifetime earnings among today’s generation of schoolchildren if corrective action is not urgently taken. Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have been the hardest hit, the report notes. Kwame Akyeampong, a GEAAP panel co-chair noted, “While many other sectors have rebounded… the damage to children’s education is likely to reduce children’s wellbeing, including mental health, and productivity for decades, making education disruption one of the biggest threats to medium- and long-term recovery from COVID-19…” 5

 

Do you think your child suffered learning loss or is grappling with the trauma of being away from school because of COVID?

 

When It Hits Closer to Home 

School is supposed to be a safe space that connects kids to daily learning, social life with friends, after school activities, a decent meal and social support services like caring educators and counselors who are constants and a source of stability. The pandemic changed that. Some children missed their friends and having that social life. Some children missed blocks of crucial learning. Some children missed a helping hand to guide them through, and some children missed being protected. School closures placed some children at a greater risk of trauma because their environments outside of school exposed them to physical, sexual and psychological violence, physical and emotional neglect, exposure to interparental violence and social isolation. Adding remote-learning to household stressors made the day to day difficulties of some parents and caretakers even worse (some turning to alcohol and drugs).

I want our communities, leaders, parents and advocates to understand what’s really going on with our children as it relates to learning loss –to see it as a health, wellness and social justice emergency. In November 2023, The New York Times’ editorial board published an article, “The Startling Evidence of Learning Loss Is In” and it read in part, 

The school closures that took 50 million children out of classrooms at the start of the pandemic may prove to be the most damaging disruption in the history of American education. It also set student progress in math and reading back by two decades and widened the achievement gap that separates poor and wealthy children.

…Economists are predicting that this generation, with such a significant educational gap, will experience diminished lifetime earnings and become a significant drag on the economy…

It will take a multidisciplinary approach, and at this point, all the solutions that will be needed long term can’t be known; the work of getting kids back on solid ground is just beginning.6 

The article delves into the mental health challenges, effects of prolonged social isolation, as well as the “absenteeism” epidemic occurring in the U.S. Millions of school age children in America, as much as 15 percent, are “chronically absent” from school. This translates again, into learning gaps. And of course, as the article makes plain, “the problem is pronounced in poorer” areas. 

So What Can We Do? 

As we have re-emerged post-pandemic, over the last two years, trying to regain some sense of normalcy, I have found that getting involved in the community is key. Renewed engagement in programs that help our children reclaim the academic knowledge and the social activities they missed can reverse what they lost, and propel them forward. It’s going to take intentional activism to get this done in our communities. Learning loss will not have the final say. We must rebuild our community, stronger.

Today, you can make a difference in a child’s life. Remember, children don’t always express their need for connection. You can pledge to be the connection they need: 

  • Be About It! 
    • Volunteer for youth activities
    • Give to organizations, like our L.A.C.E. UP initiative dedicated to health and wellness with youth sports
    • Host a read-a-thon, a chess-challenge or other fun and educational events and games in your neighborhood
    • Visit our kid’s book page to add a summer book to your library

 

Resources 

  1. Louisiana State University Special Collections Research Guide – “Hurricane Katrina Impact on Education” – Citation
  2. Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) – “What Post-Katrina New Orleans Can Teach Schools About Addressing COVID Learning Losses” Citation
  3. The 74 – “As D.C. Scrambles to Get Thousands of Students Laptops Before Monday Start of School, Many Parents Still in the Dark If Their Kids Will Get Them on Time” – Citation
  4. Pew Research Center – What we know about online learning and the homework gap amid the pandemic – Citation 
  5. World Bank releases the second annual GEAAP report “Learning Loss Must be Recovered to Avoid Long-term Damage to Children’s Wellbeing and Productivity, New Report Says”Citation
  6. New York Times – “The Startling Evidence on Learning Loss Is In” – Citation

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