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