COVID’s education crisis: A lost generation?

It may look like the pandemic is over; stadiums are open again, crowds are everywhere, and hardly a mask in sight. But COVID hurt a lot of things you can’t easily see, especially in schools. “I feel like I just need to stand on a mountaintop and just yell, ‘Take this seriously! Everything is at stake right now!'” said Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone in Manhattan.

He said that when it comes to how the pandemic affected education, the news was surprising, and definitely not in a good way. “We’ve got the data now, and things are bad; they’re actually worse than most of us thought,” said Canada. “In fact, I would tell you that we have an education crisis right now.”

The actual numbers vary by community, but according to a nationwide test given to 4th and 8th graders, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, reading skills dropped to the lowest point in 30 years.

And in math, nearly 40% of eighth graders couldn’t understand basic concepts – the worst performance since testing began back in 1969.

Canada said, “This is not just poor kids who are living in the urban centers. It’s all over America. There’s been a dramatic drop in ELA and in math scores. This goes along with the loss of students in school, with the increased violence that’s happening, and the behavioral problems that kids are facing. In my career of more than 45 years, I’ve never seen anything like this.”

And it’s not hard to see how it happened. Experts say remote teaching and a lack of computers at home are to blame. Add to that the fear of watching your family members die, and it’s no wonder millions of young people had trouble learning, or even making it through the day.

Heather Hhuszti, chief of psychology at Southern California’s Children’s Hospital Orange County, said even she couldn’t believe how many kids needed help. “We have seen an increase of 50% in the number of children presenting to our emergency department from the beginning of the pandemic to last fiscal year.”

“Kids were in some sort of mental health crisis?” asked Smith.

“Yes. What we’re saying (those of us in children’s mental health) is, it was burning embers even before the pandemic, and the pandemic came and just threw gasoline on that fire. We’re seeing more and more kids come in who are having suicidal thoughts; we’re seeing more and more kids come in who are like, ‘My grades have dropped, I can’t function anymore.’ And if we don’t help kids sort of manage some of these mental health concerns, they can’t learn effectively. These kids are struggling.”

And here’s something else that might take your breath away: A University of California study found that during the pandemic, kids spent an average of 17 minutes a day less on physical activity. Now, 17 minutes might not seem like a lot, but over time those small losses can really add up.

During the pandemic some kids didn’t go out at all, much less do any kind of exercise. So, now gym teachers like Dan DeJager at Meraki High School near Sacramento are playing catch-up. Instead of highly regimented sports and PE classes, DeJager runs a program designed to ease kids back into physical activity by having them do anything that will get them moving again, like relay races or frisbees.

Smith asked, “At this point in these kids’ lives, these are the habits they’re developing for the rest of their life?”

“It’s like wet cement,” DeJager said. “We only have so much time to make a positive impression on our students. And so, we want to use that time as wisely as we can and the best we can. And we’ve lost a little bit of that time. Now that we’re back in person, we’re trying to get there again.”

Of course, keeping kids active can do as much for their minds as their motor skills. Huszti said, “Levels of activity for mild to moderate depression can be as effective as medication. So, if we’re active, if we’re doing well at school, that can affect your mental health, and your mental health can affect those things as well. So, you get that vicious cycle going, right? There’s a linkage there. It’s all connected.”

But the bigger picture here, according to educators like Geoffrey Canada, is that this will be a kind of lost generation: under-educated to the point where it drags down their future, and ours.

“There’s a whole cohort of young people who are not going to get the kind of education that’s going to allow them to get the best jobs,” Canada said. “It’s going to cost lots of kids tens of thousands of dollars over their earnings, or some hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“We keep forgetting that this is about America,” he said. “That eight-year-old is going to be 20 when you blink your eye, and 25 in a short period of time. She needs to be an engineer. He needs to be a medical doctor. We need to start thinking about these kids as the resources for this country.”

Canada said there are ways to fix this, like intensive tutoring throughout the week; extending the school day; and keeping classrooms open in the summer.

Seems he knows what he’s talking about: The Harlem Children’s Zone, which takes kids, as they say, “from cradle to college,” has become a model for success. So, how did the pandemic hit them? They say math scores dipped a bit, but English stayed about the same. And in 2021, 100 percent of the school’s graduating seniors were accepted to college.

Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Kwame Owusu-Kesse says those numbers are proof that things like intensive tutoring work, as does paying teachers extra to stay after school. “There’s no replacing the work that needs to be done by short-changing the investment in time, extra time for our young people in the classroom with the educators,” he said.

And there may be a silver lining for the rest of the country. When asked what she thinks things will look like ten years from now, psychologist Heather Huszti said, “I feel like we could be raising a generation that’s going to be a lot more attuned to people’s pain, that’s going to be a lot more attuned to helping each other understanding the importance of connection. And that may actually lead us into a better place. So, I remain an optimist, even as we’ve gone through a very hard time. I don’t think we’re through it yet. But I do think we can come through and be better.”

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