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Learning Loss Doesn’t Begin to Describe What Happened

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The pandemic has amounted to a comprehensive assault on the American public school.

About the authors: Meira Levinson is a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Daniel Markovits is the Guido Calabresi Professor of Law at Yale Law School and the author of The Meritocracy Trap.

On March 4, 2020, a week before the World Health Organization formally declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, Northshore School District, in Washington State, closed its doors, becoming the first in the country to announce a districtwide shift to online learning. Within three weeks, every public-school building in the United States had been closed and 50 million students had been sent home. Half of these students would not reenter their schools for more than a year. No other high-income country in the world relied to such a great extent on remote instruction. The coronavirus caused by far the biggest disruption in the history of American education. Neither the Great Depression nor even the two World Wars imposed anything close to as drastic a change in how America’s schoolchildren spent their days.

Adulthood is stasis: Any year in one’s 50s tends to be much like the next. But childhood is growth, and when schools closed, they shut children out of the place where much of this growth happens. Some of the lost growth was academic and social, as school closures cut children off from teachers and friends. These losses were compounded by children’s exclusion from an array of other goods and services. In the United States, almost all public services for school-age children in some way run through schools. Schools provide nutrition; dental care; nursing services; mental-health care; physical, occupational, and speech therapy; child care for teen parents; referrals to social workers and child-welfare agencies; and laundry facilities and clothing for homeless students. Even in an era of mass shootings and COVID outbreaks, schools are the safest place for children. Moreover, schools don’t just serve the children who attend them. They also provide child care for parents and create social, cultural, and political hubs for communities.

Kelsey Ko: Classroom time isn’t the only thing students have lost

Conventional accounts of the effect of school closures focus on the shift from in-person to online teaching and the academic losses that resulted. This familiar story isn’t false, but it’s only a part of the truth, and it understates both the disruption and the inequities that COVID wrought on students’ lives. When schools closed, all the goods that they provide became suddenly scarcer, and children and families who relied most on public provision of these goods suffered a cascade of harms that touched virtually every aspect of their lives. The disruption the coronavirus has caused to schoolchildren will ripple through the future of the COVID generation. Unfinished learning may turn out to be the easiest of these losses to cure.

A complete reckoning begins by explaining precisely how school closures affected children’s daily lives. For many students, physical school wasn’t replaced with Zoom school. Rather, physical school closures meant no school—literally none at all, for days and even weeks on end.

National surveys of teachers by the EdWeek Research Center, for example, reported that nearly a quarter of students ended the 2020 spring semester “essentially truant.” In Los Angeles, the situation was even more dire: Four in 10 students simply failed to participate regularly in remote-learning programs during the first pandemic spring.

Read: The biggest problem for America’s schools

Zoom school in many cases amounted to no school in the next year as well. According to our best estimate, by the time schools let out for summer in May or June 2021, the average American public-school student had experienced 65 school days without any contact whatsoever from their schools or teachers—no in-person classes, no Zoom classes, no video conferences, no telephone calls. That’s more than a third of a school year without schooling, full stop.

The losses, moreover, weren’t evenly distributed. Richer kids got more in-person schooling than poorer kids. And even when they were physically locked out of buildings, richer kids got more, and more effective, Zoom schooling than poorer kids. In public schools, students with household incomes below $25,000 experienced about 76 days, or nearly half a school year, without schooling at all. Students with household incomes above $200,000, in contrast, lost about 54 days—still considerable, but roughly a month less lost........

© The Atlantic

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