Commentary: Education’s unprecedented present may forecast future problems

As we approach the end of a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented upheaval to education, and as schools lurch backward and forward and back again in varying stages of reopening their campuses, parents are understandably worried about the future.

They wonder about the long-term impact of all the disruption, and if their children will suffer lasting harm.

The answer: Yes. No. It depends.

Now that I’ve cleared that up for you, I will amend the above to state categorically that no one can predict with anything approaching precision how the long-range effects on students will manifest. Although we have hints from history, some educated guesses and earnest efforts to mitigate the impact, the uniqueness of our current situation obstructs our long-range view toward what lies ahead.

The 1918 flu pandemic fundamentally altered the world, but that was a different disease that hit young people particularly hard, and it occurred long before computers and the Internet could be used for distance learning.

More recently, the school shutdowns in Christchurch, New Zealand after an earthquake in 2011 did not result in long-term learning losses, researchers found. It was similar after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. But those closures lasted weeks, not several months, and were contained to specific geographic areas.

Among the biggest worries now is that our current crisis is exacerbating the deep inequalities that already existed in education.

Since the beginning of the pandemic and the switch to mainly online learning, schools have experienced increases in absenteeism, and attention-deficit and motivational issues have multiplied. Some students didn’t have access to the devices or Wi-Fi they needed to connect to their classes, and many had difficulties finding adequate space to do their work.

All these problems hit students on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum hardest. And even though school administrators and teachers have been working overtime to bring disadvantaged students up to speed, those kids remain at risk of suffering disproportionate learning losses.

The consequences of those losses could unfold in significant ways in the years to come.

A report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. warned of larger academic achievement gaps and higher drop-out rates that simply can’t be erased in a year. It’s possible we will see long-term harm to individuals and society, including greater income disparities, higher crime rates and lower economic growth, it said.

These are not inevitable outcomes, McKinsey noted. But lasting damage is increasingly likely if we don’t urgently intervene to give more support to the most vulnerable students.

The other, possibly even greater, concern is over the potential impact to the social-emotional development and well-being of students.

From primary grades to higher education, schools have long assumed responsibility for fostering the growth of what is often referred to as “the whole child.” Schools aren’t seen as mere academic factories but also play a key role in developing kids’ broader understanding of how to function in society. They are where students learn to navigate relationships, explore interests

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With unprecedented numbers of failing grades, reports of student anxiety, Sonoma County education leaders call emergency summit

Facing a steep spike in students with failing grades as well as emerging evidence of pervasive mental health woes among area teens, education leaders in Sonoma County have scheduled an unprecedented emergency summit to address what they are describing as a looming crisis.

High school students are failing classes at rates never before seen in Sonoma County — in some cases double the number recorded in the first six weeks of school last year, superintendents of secondary districts are reporting.

As educators begin a search for solutions to the surge of low grades, they are also grappling with the troubling results from a national survey of student mental health. Sonoma County students, unlike the majority of their peers elsewhere in the state and nation, are reporting feeling deep anxiety over their futures.

More than 7 out of 10 of the more than 4,500 high school students in Sonoma County who participated in a national survey in May reported that “feeling anxious about the future” was the No. 1 barrier to distance learning. By comparison, “distractions at home” was the chief obstacle to distance learning listed by the more than 20,000 students from nine states who participated in the survey by YouthTruth, a nonprofit organization formed as part of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

“When we heard the YouthTruth (results) that 71% have a fear of the future, that is when it hit home: We are different. It is now being verified,” Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Diann Kitamura said. “We are an outlier. … That is corroborating that our kids and our teachers have been through hell and back, and we aren’t back yet.”

Wildfires that have canceled class and wreaked havoc every year since 2017, along with power shut-offs, a flood in the west county and now a global pandemic, have led to compounded trauma for Sonoma County students who are now showing signs of mental health struggles, educators said.

With the county unable yet to effectively reduce coronavirus cases and transmission rates that are among the worst in California, Sonoma County public schools have been barred from resuming in-person classes on campuses since mid-March. A private school in Sonoma, The Presentation School, reopened last week and two others, Sonoma Country Day and The Healdsburg School, won approval to resume classes the first week of November. But approximately 68,000 transitional kindergarten-through-12th-grade students have not been inside a classroom or face to face with their teachers in more than six months.

“We have to do something now. This needs to stop,” Healdsburg Unified School District Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel said.

“We have friends in other parts of the state, and not to say that their kids aren’t struggling, but it does appear to me that we have got more complex mental health issues and anxieties that we are seeing in our kids right now that is different than in other places,” he said. “You look at seniors and what those kids have gone through for four years — fire after

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Unprecedented energy use since 1950 has transformed humanity’s geologic footprint

earth
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

A new study coordinated by CU Boulder makes clear the extraordinary speed and scale of increases in energy use, economic productivity and global population that have pushed the Earth towards a new geological epoch, known as the Anthropocene. Distinct physical, chemical and biological changes to Earth’s rock layers began around the year 1950, the research found.


Led by Jaia Syvitski, CU Boulder professor emerita and former director of the Institute of Alpine Arctic Research (INSTAAR), the paper, published today in Nature Communications Earth and Environment, documents the natural drivers of environmental change throughout the past 11,700 years—known as the Holocene Epoch—and the dramatic human-caused shifts since 1950. Such planetary-wide changes have altered oceans, rivers, lakes, coastlines, vegetation, soils, chemistry and climate.

“This is the first time that scientists have documented humanity’s geological footprint on such a comprehensive scale in a single publication,” said Syvitski, former executive director of the Community Surface Dynamics Modeling System, a diverse community of international experts from who study the interactions between the Earth’s surface, water and atmosphere.

In the past 70 years, humans have exceeded the energy consumption of the entire preceding 11,700 years—largely through combustion of fossil fuels. This huge increase in energy consumption has then allowed for a dramatic increase in human population, industrial activity, pollution, environmental degradation and climate change.

The study is the result of work by the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), an interdisciplinary group of scientists analyzing the case for making the Anthropocene a new epoch within the official Geological Time Scale, characterized by the overwhelming human impact on the Earth.

The word Anthropocene follows the naming convention for assigning geologically defined lengths of time and has come to embody the present time during which humans are dominating planetary-scale Earth systems.

In geological time, an epoch is longer than an Age but shorter than a Period, measured in tens of millions of years. Within the Holocene epoch, there are several Ages—but the Anthropocene is proposed as a separate Epoch within Earth’s planetary history.

“It takes a lot to change the Earth’s system,” said Syvitski. “Even if we were to get into a greener world where we were not burning fossil fuels, the main culprit of greenhouse gases, we would still have a record of an enormous change on our planet.”

Unambiguous markers of the Anthropocene

The 18 authors of the study compiled existing research to highlight 16 major planetary impacts caused by increased energy consumption and other human activities, spiking in significance around or since 1950.

Between 1952 and 1980, humans set off more than 500 thermonuclear explosions above ground as part of global nuclear weapons testing, which have forever left a clear signature of human-caused radionuclides—atoms with excess nuclear energy—on or near the surface of the entire planet.

Since about 1950, humans have also doubled the amount of fixed nitrogen on the planet through industrial production for agriculture, created a hole in the ozone layer through the industrial scale release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), released

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