Keeping Kids Learning Across America During A Global Pandemic

By Shane Garver, Senior Director, U.S. Rural Education Programs

In late February and early March, schools across America began to shutter to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and keep children, families and communities safe. What began as isolated closures in a handful of school districts quickly ballooned into a nationwide shutdown. By the end of March 2020, nearly every U.S. public school was closed, leaving more than 55 million children from kindergarten through 12th grade at home. And closures were extended, and extended and extended. By mid-April, all states but Montana and Wyoming mandated statewide school closures through the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

This massive, sudden shift to remote, at-home learning had immediate effects on children and families alike. School districts scrambled to provide non-traditional instruction and deploy technology to keep kids connected and learning. Parents and caregivers juggled full-time work and homeschooling amid massive economic upheaval and a more than quadrupled unemployment rate. Plus, the digital divide became a significant barrier to equitable learning. In a study this summer, Common Sense Media revealed 16 million students lacked adequate internet or devices to sustain effective distance learning at home. Nearly 40 percent of affected children live in rural communities, where internet connectivity and access – the rural digital divide – has long been a challenge.

The long-lasting damage of this widespread educational upheaval is equally troubling.  Pandemic-related school closures made Summer 2020 the longest of children’s lives, and not in a good way. All children are at risk of losing achievement gains made in the school year over the summer months, and the summer slide disproportionately affects children from low-income communities. According to the National Summer Learning Association, children can lose two to three months of reading progress each summer.

Tennessee was the first state to quantify the impact of COVID-19 closures on early learners. The state’s Department of Education projects an estimated 50 percent decrease in proficiency in third-grade reading – a major indicator for a child’s success – and a projected 65 percent decrease in math proficiency. I fear that these drops in student learning will prove true for elementary-aged children across America. Plus, the potential detriment to our global economy is very real. In September, economists estimated COVID-related learning loss shrinks the incomes of affected children by 3 percent over their lifetimes.

So, what will it take to catch children up?

  • First, focused, intentional investment in high-quality early education. Nobel Prize-winning economist Dr. James Heckman shows the rate of return on those investments can be 13 percent per child, per year, due to improved outcomes in education, health, sociability and economic productivity.
  • Second, a concerted effort must be made to support the health and well-being of children and the adults who care for them, from teachers to bus drivers, food service staff to school administrators.
  • And third, an unwavering commitment to ensure equitable learning for all children across America.

This next generation – and our shared future – is at stake.  


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