The Lasting Damage of School Closures

Even the students know how much school closures failed them.

Recently, in my high school Business Communication class, I had one of the most disheartening conversations I’ve ever had with my students. It was regarding the effects of the pandemic lockdowns. Policymakers and leaders need to listen to these experiences, get students back on track and develop new strategies if we ever have a challenge similar to the COVID-19 pandemic in the future.

It was apparent during this conversation that many children under 18 cannot do school by computer.  My students admitted that they regularly checked in with their teachers and then either turned off their camera or checked out after attendance. Many students said the isolation shortened their attention spans and made it difficult to stay on task. This is reflected in recent research as well. The Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard released a study in May based on two years’ worth of data, from 2019 through 2021. Over that timeframe students who attended school in-person for the 2020-21 school year—and were only remote for the spring of 2020—lost about 20% of their learning in math, while students who were remote for the majority of that time lost close to 50% of their learning. That is a disaster.

Two students shared about taking the ACT exam and how they just wanted to give up in the middle of the test because in the last year they “hadn’t learned anything.” By far, this was the saddest statement shared within the discussion. When I revealed to them that schools in their surrounding suburbs were allowed to go back to in-person instruction much sooner than Milwaukee Lutheran, I saw anger in their eyes. They feel the policymakers and community leaders bailed on them, and they won’t forget it.

Many students shared that during remote learning, a day of school felt more like a day off with nothing to do unless they had a paying job to go to in order to fill the void. For many students, the lockdowns are what caused them to get jobs—not just because of finances, but for social interaction. More than 25% of my class still works until 11:00 or midnight on school nights. And then they have to get home, study, sleep and be back to school, sometimes without eating a meal. 

The steep rise in failing grades across the country is hard to ignore.  At Milwaukee Lutheran, a number of students are struggling to advance to the next grade. My students are concerned about graduating on time while continuing to hold down the jobs they got during the pandemic. 

It is no wonder that, upon returning to school, there have been more incidences of students losing patience with each other and social awkwardness. There is a sense that they’ve lost the ability to be around each other even though it’s what they crave the most.

The loss students experienced was much more than classroom learning and socialization, though. Schools like Milwaukee Lutheran invest in the whole child and focus on character development and giving students the tools they will need to succeed in life after high school. Much of this is done through the culture the school creates. My students feel that the kids coming up behind them don’t know the school’s culture, they barely remember it themselves, which makes them feel angry and lost. From a teacher and administrative standpoint, we see this too in more incidences of inappropriate behavior at school.

Keeping schools closed even once we knew children are among the least likely to suffer from COVID-19 certainly was harmful to students. But for the vast majority, there is still time to get them back on track for success. For instance, Arkansas is using a portion of its American Rescue Plan funds to hire retired teachers, current teachers, teaching paraprofessionals, college students, and community members to tutor students who need extra help catching up, with a focus on K-8 literacy and math, and support for 9-12 literacy and math as needed. Arkansas plans to have 1,000 tutors prepared to close gaps by fall. A group called Accelerate is doing something similar by partnering with schools to implement high-intensity tutoring nationwide.

The pandemic didn’t just affect students, but their whole families. Schools would be wise to reinitiate with families and strengthen those connections. This was a challenge for a lot of schools even before the pandemic. But establishing a new normal in the post-pandemic world needs to involve parent input at home and their partnership is essential to reengaging students and reforming habits. 

As my students expressed in this conversation, adults made policy decisions at the state and city levels that failed these kids. And I’m sure many other children feel this way across the country. The best we can do is try and pick up the pieces and learn from those mistakes. Their futures, indeed, all of our futures, depend on it.

Shannon Whitworth