From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.
Today: What students didn’t learn because of the pandemic, and the challenges they’re facing now from the Delta variant.
Kevin Roose spoke with our colleague, education reporter Dana Goldstein.
It’s Wednesday, September 1.
Dana, it’s been 18 months, more or less, since schools first closed due to the pandemic. And I think we all know it’s been a hugely challenging time for parents and kids navigating all this distance learning, hybrid learning, all these new Covid protocols. And there’s still, I’m sure, a lot we don’t know. But you’ve been reporting on some new information about what we do know now about the impacts of the last 18 months on students and their learning. Can you just walk me through your reporting on the impact that Covid has had on students and their learning?
Sure. It has definitely had an impact on the learning of students of all ages. But some of the most worrying academic data that we’ve seen has come with the youngest children, and that’s not necessarily surprising. Some of the kids that were asked to learn online this past year are too young to read, too young to type, too young to log into a computer without adult help. And not every child had an adult who could sit side by side with them for hours every day to handle this.
So we do see what I would like to call missed learning. And I’m using the term missed learning even though learning loss is what’s commonly talked about.
Why is that?
Well, learning loss might imply that you forgot what you knew and didn’t learn anything. But that’s not actually what the research shows. Students did learn during the pandemic. They did move forward from where they were a year and a half ago. But they just didn’t move as fast or as much as they would have if there hadn’t been the pandemic and all these school closures.
Yeah, so it’s sort of less about a loss, less about going backward than it is about, as you called it, missed learning. And what does that actually look like in terms of their academics?
So in terms of reading and math, one study found that students were four to seven months behind where they would have been if it had not been for the pandemic.
Wow. Four to seven months just sounds like a lot of time, especially for younger kids.
Yeah. So to talk about third grade reading, for example, which is a really important grade and a really important subject matter — an important milestone because we know from research that students who are not reading fluently and well in third grade have lifelong impacts. They get lower grades as they go through their school experience. They don’t have the reading skills to access a lot of the more complex information in math or science or social studies that they’re going to need to know. And it actually increases your risk of dropping out of high school and not going on to or completing college if you cannot read well by the end of third grade.
And so we see pretty clearly in the research that those students who had the least access to in-person learning this year are the same students who missed the most academically.
And I remember early in the pandemic, there was a lot of worry about attendance at virtual class. Kids just weren’t showing up in the numbers that teachers had hoped for. So what do we now know about what happens to attendance during the pandemic?
It was really spotty. I interviewed so many teachers across the country who’d say, oh, you know, there’s 15 percent of my class or 20 percent of my class that are always there every day. And then there’s another 10 percent who I never see except for their names on a roster. And the roster in and out, so attendance was spotty. There’s lots of reasons why, in some households, maybe four siblings were sharing a single device. A lot of families had trouble with high speed internet. They didn’t have the connection they needed. And then some kids just didn’t have a one-on-one adult to guide them through these logins and lessons.
But an even more stark challenge is that many students during the pandemic did not enroll in public school at all.
And we saw this in many places across the country, but particularly in low income neighborhoods. So for example, in Honolulu, one elementary school lost half of its incoming kindergarteners. In Philadelphia, we saw many schools that lost 25 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent of kindergartners. And the same in Jackson, Mississippi, which is an overwhelmingly low-income and Black school district.
And what that adds up to is that across the country, over one million students during the pandemic did not enroll in public school who would have normally been there, and 1/3 of those were kindergartners.
And can you just put that into context for me? Like what does it mean to have a million kids out of the school system? What does that amount to?
So there’s about 50 million public school students in the United States. So one million is a small percentage of the total. But we really care a lot because our research at The Times shows that they are disproportionately from low-income neighborhoods, so those students who had the most challenges with education even previous to the pandemic. And also, historically, we’ve just never experienced a disruption, really, on this scale.
And to the extent we know about these million missing students, why are they leaving, and what are they doing instead?
They’re leaving for many of the same reasons that regular attendance was difficult for so many students — so the lack of access to the technology they needed, the fact that they may not have had an adult to sit side by side with them and guide them through these lessons. Or there were language barriers, or perhaps difficulties getting all the paperwork together that schools ask for to enroll a child.
But in addition, I did speak to some families who simply just decided not to enroll their children in local public schools because they did not think that the remote education being provided by those schools was of high quality. And they were right in some cases. Many schools did not provide a live interaction with teachers over the course of the pandemic, or the lessons were sort of more busywork than really stimulating. And some parents looked for alternatives, whether it was homeschooling or enrolling their kid in some for profit or private virtual experience that they thought was more high quality.
I think what is troubling is that we know that for the vast majority of young children, it is most developmentally appropriate to be learning in person — that at that age, the best learning is going to happen when you’re in an environment that’s hands-on, where you can pick up blocks, where you have paints and easels and all the things that are in a classroom, where you’re with your peers and are learning to share and play and cooperate with one another. And where you get to know this very important person in your life — your teacher — who can really watch you and really learn if you have special needs that need to be addressed, whether it’s an emotional need, refer you to a counselor, whether maybe you have a special education diagnosis that a teacher can see you need to be assessed for and get extra help.
These are all the things that just don’t happen as effectively in the online space. And so now, there’s really a very strong consensus that getting as many kids as possible back to the traditional in-person classroom experience is extremely important. The problem is that in what was supposed to be the fall of recovery, with classroom door swinging open and kids coming back with as normal of a day as possible, we see the rise of the Delta variant. And it is definitely not the fall that people had hoped for.
We’ll be right back.
So now that we have this kind of general consensus about how important it is for kids to be back in person learning in the classroom, how are schools trying to open classrooms and get kids safely back into their seats, especially at this moment when the Delta variant is creating another surge?
Well, certainly keeping kids healthy and safe is the first order of business in terms of returning to some type of educational normalcy. And we have reassuring evidence from last year that in general during the pandemic, schools have not been sites of high transmission of the coronavirus.
Unfortunately, there’s a little bit more uncertainty now with the Delta variant. And so strategies such as masking, vaccination for all who are eligible, quarantining potentially, those who have come in close contact with the virus become more important.
Can we break those three strategies down a little bit, maybe starting with vaccination?
Yeah. So of course, children under 12 do not have access to vaccines. But all epidemiologists have pointed out that one of the best ways we can keep them safe is to make sure that all those older 12, who they spend time around are vaccinated. And although teachers have a pretty good uptake of the vaccine across the country compared to the general population, it is not 100 percent. This is something that has become a point of controversy. But we have some data showing just how devastating it can be for a teacher to be unvaccinated.
And what does that data show, exactly?
So last week, the C.D.C. released a case study of a school, an elementary school in Marin County, California in the Bay Area, that experienced an outbreak of the Delta variant. And in this case, a single unvaccinated teacher infected about half of her masked students. And the way this happened was pretty extraordinary.
So there was an open window. There was an open door, there was an air filter in the classroom, so a lot of those ventilation measures that are recommended. And the children were masked and had good compliance with masking. But the teacher, who had been having symptoms for two days, came to work anyhow. She was unvaccinated, and she removed her mask to read aloud to the children. And this apparently, according to the C.D.C. case study, led to quite a lot of infection, not just in this one classroom, but also to other children in the school. And then, of course, children did bring the virus home, and it caused some breakthrough infections as well in vaccinated adults.
Wow. And that is happening in Marin County, which is one of the wealthiest counties in America in a state with a fairly high rate of vaccination and a lot of tools to combat the virus. And still there was a major outbreak because of one unvaccinated teacher.
Yes. And the reason why this is so compelling is that it was such a highly vaccinated community. So you can imagine the outcome being much more tragic if this had occurred in a place with more resistance to the vaccine.
So OK, vaccines are clearly important. But they’re not the only tool that school districts are relying on to prevent outbreaks happening in schools. You also mentioned masking and mask policies. How are masks being deployed as a part of the fight against the virus in schools?
The C.D.C. is recommending universal masking for students and staff and any visitors to a school. So they do not think anyone inside of a school should not be wearing a mask. But most states have left it up to local districts whether they want to employ these guidelines. And notably, about nine states, typically with Republican legislatures and governors, have attempted to prevent schools from mandating masks.
Famously, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has said that masking a child is a matter of parental rights. It’s a parent’s individual choice whether or not to mask a child. And so this has led to just virulent and sometimes toxic debates across the country at school board meetings, with shouting and emotions running really, really high.
And aside from the question about the politicization of masks for kids, do masks even work for kids? Are they actually a good tool in fighting the Delta variant?
Yeah, that is a complicated question. There aren’t actually a lot of really excellent studies that are able to show exactly what the impact is of requiring children, especially younger children under 12, to wear a mask. What is known clearly from the research is that the more mitigation strategies you use, the more you tamp down on transmission.
So for example, if you test kids regularly for the virus, and mask them, and have them wash their hands, and quarantine and isolate positive Covid-19 cases and those who come into contact with them — if you do all of that and have great ventilation in the classroom, you’re going to have a much, much lower rate of transmission of Covid-19.
But it’s really, really difficult to pull apart the threads of which of those interventions was the most effective. There’s some really interesting evidence from abroad about schools that are not really heavily relying on masking and are taking a different approach.
So in the U.K., it has never been the norm for students under 12 to wear masks or for their teachers to wear masks in the classroom. And reassuringly, during the Delta surge in the U.K., they operated schools and schools did not appear to be a site of higher transmission of Covid when compared to the community at large.
So in other words, some of the similar type of reassuring data that we saw throughout the pandemic, it didn’t look like the Delta wave in England changed the calculus in terms of schools being a major driver of the surge itself.
However, it is hard to draw conclusions in the American context from what happened in England, because every family of a school child in England is asked to twice weekly rapid test their child at home. So there’s widespread asymptomatic testing to catch cases of the virus, and all of this is totally free to families. And also, the English school system has one single set of Covid guidelines, and all public and private schools must follow it.
And that, again, is just very different from the United States’s experience. We don’t have widespread access to inexpensive or free tests, even at this point a year and a half into the pandemic. And we also have such local control of our schools that there is no one set of guidelines.
So Dana, despite all of these attempts to prevent it with vaccines and masks, inevitably people in schools will get Covid. So how are schools approaching quarantining?
The C.D.C. has said that children do not need to quarantine if they come into contact with Covid-19 if they were at least three feet away from the infected individual and both people had on a well-fitting mask. But what we’ve seen in some places in the South is they’re quarantining pretty aggressively at times because they don’t have a lot of other mitigation strategies in place.
Yeah. And it seems like quarantining probably also, then, contributes to all the challenges we already talked about — disrupting kids’ opportunities for academic success and social development. You’re kind of right back where you started if you need to quarantine.
Yeah. And a 10-day quarantine is going to mean returning to all of the challenges of remote learning. I mean, to return for a second to the U.K. example, they have just announced that in England this school year, there will be no more quarantines.
One of the reasons they’ve done that is there’s been some reassuring data in the U.K. They did a study where they looked at kids who came into contact with Covid, and some were quarantined, and some were simply tested. And the rate of infection was under 2 percent for both groups. So it’s possible that aggressive quarantining is not necessary. But certainly all of the major school districts that I have been tracking for The Times are still planning to use this strategy this year.
Dana, we’ve talked about students and how they’re faring during the pandemic, and parents and the challenges that they’re facing. One thing we haven’t really talked about yet is the teacher side of the equation. So how are teachers approaching this school year in terms of actually teaching students and making sure that the missed learning that kids have experienced over the past year, that there’s some way of catching up?
I recently had the experience to sit in on a incoming first grade class in Philadelphia. And it was really interesting to talk to that teacher about what she was observing. Typically, a first grade teacher or a second grade teacher does not meet children who have never been in a classroom. But that is not the case this fall. Some of these students were pre-school aged when the pandemic began in March 2020 and have not been in a classroom since then, or may never have been because we don’t have access to universal free pre-school in the United States.
So some of the observations I’ve heard from teachers are children who aren’t familiar with how to correctly hold a pencil, for example, who do not open a book in the correct direction and understand that writing in the English language flows from left to right. Kids who just need help with those routines of the classroom — so sharing materials with friends, lining up to walk to the gymnasium or a cafeteria, raising their hands and waiting for their turn to speak.
These are just some of the basics that teachers of older age students are encountering that they need to teach, that they’re not accustomed to. So one of the things that schools are doing with stimulus dollars, which are flowing to them from the federal government, is training first and second grade teachers how to provide this to students without losing too much time from the academic catch-up that also needs to occur.
You mentioned stimulus dollars. How much money are we talking, and where is it going and how is it being spent?
Congress has allocated nearly $200 billion for Covid relief aid to public schools. And it is quite localized what the approach will be and how the money is spent. And we’re going to have to wait a little longer to really get a national picture of that.
But there are some approaches that I have begun to hear about. One is lowering class sizes so that teachers can give students more individual attention. Some districts are using the money to hire more school nurses, counselors, or social workers to help kids recover from the mental, social and health impacts of the pandemic. Other schools are buying new curriculum materials, refreshing their textbooks, professional development for teachers to help them do a better job working with kids.
And Dana, given that we’re now armed with all of these studies and this data about how kids fared over the last 18 months, and we now sort have kind of a tenuous plan to keep kids in schools, do you think we’ll get to the end of the school year with kids generally in a better place? Or because of the Delta variant and all these new factors, is this going to be another year of missed learning?
I think it’s too early to say. And I hesitate to predict because so many of the predictions that we’ve made through the pandemic have not panned out. But there are reasons to be hopeful. We do know what can help students make up for what they’ve lost. We know that one-on-one tutoring can work really well for kids. We know how to best teach young kids how to read. There is a science of reading that really works.
And we know that it’s not enough to just focus on academics. Kids need schools to be rich, warm, inviting places with arts and sports and social workers and counselors and everything that will increase their joy so we can help them recover emotionally from this pandemic.
But we have a flawed and unequal school system. And that was true way before the pandemic. And this is a gargantuan task with really high stakes. And in fact, this is one of the biggest challenges that the American public school system has ever faced.
Dana, thank you so much.
Thank you, Kevin.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you need to know today.
- archived recording (joe biden)
Last night in Kabul, the United States ended twenty years of war in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history.
In a speech on Tuesday, President Biden forcefully defended the way in which the U.S. completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, calling the emergency operation to evacuate Americans and Afghans a historic success.
- archived recording (joe biden)
No nation, no nation has ever done anything like it in all of history.
Acknowledging those who have criticized his approach and the death of 13 U.S. service members at the Kabul airport, Biden said he did not regret his decisions.
- archived recording (joe biden)
The bottom line is there is no evacuation from the end of a war that you can run without the kinds of complexities, challenges, threats we faced — none.
And the Republican-controlled legislature in Texas has passed a major bill restricting voting after weeks of efforts by Democratic lawmakers to block the measure, at times by fleeing the state. The bill takes special aim at Harris County, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, by banning new voting methods that have made it easier to vote during the pandemic. Those include drive-through polling places, 24-hour voting and temporary voting locations.
Today’s episode was produced by Sydney Harper, Robert Jimison and Soraya Shockley, with help from Chelsea Daniel. It was edited by Larissa Anderson and Dave Shaw. Original music by Brad Fisher, Dan Powell and Marion Lozano, and engineered by Marion Lozano.
That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.