Because I am the type of person and, particularly, the type of parent with a tendency to fret, I often fixate on a string of related thoughts as I watch my elder kiddo struggle through his remote learning classes.
What is this going to do to him? What impact will this bizarre academic year have on my child? And what about his classmates, or the millions of children around the country starting their school years behind computers and tablets — or who aren’t logged on at all?
Of course, no one really knows, because this academic year is truly unprecedented. Yet education and mental health experts are beginning to reckon with the long-term fallout of this school year that wasn’t. HuffPost Parents spoke to several who offered some predictions about what this “lost year” could portend for America’s children.
There will be significant learning loss.
Experts agree that most kids will have fallen behind where they otherwise would have been, had schools not abruptly shuttered in March. The question now is: by how much?
One recent estimate suggests that children who are learning remotely and who receive pretty typical instruction will lose up to four months of learning by the time they resume in-person classes in January 2021 — if that, in fact, happens. And children who are getting lower-quality remote instruction could lose up to 11 months of learning. Children who aren’t engaged in remote education at all could lose up to 14 months of learning.
“In many cases, children will be more than a year behind,” warned Brian Perkins, an associate professor of practice in education leadership and director of the Summer Principals Academy at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “Others will be a few months. But I think we will see, universally, loss.”
He stressed that this is not a criticism of children, parents or teachers who are doing their best to work through an impossible situation. “It’s more of a ‘let’s face the reality,’” Perkins said.
Inequality will be a bigger problem than ever before.
Experts who work in health and education tend to believe that most of the equity problems facing children, families and educators during the COVID-19 pandemic have always been there. Now, they are magnified.
“The gaps that have always existed are just going to be wider,” said Nermeen Dashoush, an early childhood education professor at Boston University and chief curriculum officer at MarcoPolo Learning.
“We are going to see a wider gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots'.”
Students in the highest-poverty districts in the country are much more likely to have begun this academic year remotely, but children in lower-income households are much more likely to lack the tools they need, like reliable high-speed internet. Experts are predicting a surge in high school dropouts.
Meanwhile, children whose parents can afford it may have opted to send them to private schools, to create learning pods or to supplement whatever school their children are getting with tutors and extracurriculars.
“We are going to see a wider gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots,’” Perkins said.
We’ll have an urgent need to figure out where exactly kids are.
All of the experts who spoke to HuffPost Parents for this story emphasized how critical it will be to have ways of assessing how much individual children have been affected by the pandemic in order to even think about getting them the help and support they need.
“Children whose families are physically healthy, economically secure, whose parents are available and supportive, and who can safely and consistently receive a quality education may experience short-term emotional distress,” said Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Illinois.
But there will be plenty of other children at risk of developing depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. “These children have families who have lost jobs, have fewer economic resources to make ends meet, and have housing instability,” Meyers said. “Others may be experiencing increased risk because family members have become physically ill or their parents have had a more serious psychological response to the pandemic.” Kids who have had prior mental health issues will also be at higher risk.
The same goes for academics: Again, some children will have experienced relatively minimal learning loss by the time schools return. Others will be a year-plus behind.
“There are strategies and techniques that can help kids catch up, but you have to first identify them,” said Perkins. “Will we invest in teachers so they will know how? In September 2021, if they are back in the classroom, instead of having TWO children who need those interventions, they might have 20.”
Perkins said he fears that teachers will not be given the time, support or training they need to manage that scenario. And parents and experts, from pediatricians to counselors, will also have to get involved.
“The complexity and scale of monitoring and assisting youth [will] require services that go beyond business as usual,” Meyers said.
Our new challenge: Helping kids love learning again.
“This is going to impact their relationship with learning. I do not think a lot of children will come out of this year loving it,” Dashoush said. Even children who are in the classroom are not getting a typical experience, given safety precautions that prevent them from touching and socializing as they would naturally.
Dashoush believes parents and educators should be prepared for the likelihood that the COVID-19 pandemic won’t just result in learning loss; it will result in the loss of the love of learning for many kids, even those who seem relatively engaged online. (“A child could be doing all the work, but not really learning anything new,” she warned.)
And learning that love of — and zeal for — learning matters, not simply because we’d like kids to enjoy the thing they spend six and a half hours a day doing, but also because enjoyment and achievement are clearly linked.
“I would say to focus on the things we know have a long-term effect. Read them a good book,” she said. “Make sure they’re learning things they are really interested in.”