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  • Tony Wold, Ed.D.

AP NEWS: Online school put US kids behind. Some adults have regrets.

Originally appeared in AP News


BOSTON (AP) — Vivian Kargbo thought her daughter’s Boston school district was doing the right thing when officials kept classrooms closed for most students for more than a year.

Kargbo, a caregiver for hospice patients, didn’t want to risk them getting COVID-19. And extending pandemic school closures through the spring of 2021 is what many in her community said was best to keep kids and adults safe.

But her daughter became depressed and stopped doing school work or paying attention to online classes. The former honor-roll student failed nearly all of her eighth-grade courses.

“She’s behind,” said Kargbo, whose daughter is now in tenth grade. “It didn’t work at all. Knowing what I know now, I would say they should have put them in school.”

Preliminary test scores around the country confirm what Kargbo witnessed: The longer many students studied remotely, the less they learned. Some educators and parents are questioning decisions in cities from Boston to Chicago to Los Angeles to remain online long after clear evidence emerged that schools weren’t COVID-19 super-spreaders — and months after life-saving adult vaccines became widely available.

There are fears for the futures of students who don’t catch up. They run the risk of never learning to read, long a precursor for dropping out of school. They might never master simple algebra, putting science and tech fields out of reach. The pandemic decline in college attendance could continue to accelerate, crippling the U.S. economy.

In a sign of how inflammatory the debate has become, there’s sharp disagreement among educators, school leaders, and parents even about how to label the problems created by online school. “Learning loss” has become a lightning rod. Some fear the term might brand struggling students or cast blame on teachers, and they say it overlooks the need to save lives during a pandemic.

Regardless of what it’s called, the casualties of Zoom school are real.

The scale of the problem and the challenges in addressing it were apparent in Associated Press interviews with nearly 50 school leaders, teachers, parents and health officials, who struggled to agree on a way forward.

Some public health officials and educators warned against second-guessing the school closures for a virus that killed over a million people in the U.S. More than 200,000 children lost at least one parent.

“It is very easy with hindsight to say, ‘Oh, learning loss, we should have opened.’ People forget how many people died,” said Austin Beutner, former superintendent in Los Angeles, where students were online from mid-March 2020 until the start of hybrid instruction in April 2021.

The question isn’t merely academic.

School closures continued last year because of teacher shortages and COVID-19 spread. It’s conceivable another pandemic might emerge — or a different crisis.

But there’s another reason for asking what lessons have been learned: the kids who have fallen behind. Some third graders struggle to sound out words. Some ninth graders have given up on school because they feel so behind they can’t catch up. The future of American children hangs in the balance.

Many adults are pushing to move on, to stop talking about the impact of the pandemic — especially learning loss.