The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an education crisis unlike anything we’ve seen before, and it will impact this generation of students for the rest of their lives. More than 55 million children across the country had their education and lives swiftly upended, often leaving school on a Friday without any indication that they would not be back in their classrooms for the rest of the school year or beyond. School districts scrambled to adapt, and while many provided some level of distance learning opportunities, children with disabilities, children from low-income and unemployed families, children living in rural communities, and children of color are facing many barriers to accessing this modified education, which has carried into the fall in districts across the country.
The pandemic and barriers to accessing this modified education have created a well-documented crisis of learning loss. Children are facing a “COVID-19 slide” because of the disruption to their 2019-2020 school year that research suggests could mean a loss of 30 percent of the year’s learning gains in reading and losses from more than 50 percent to as much as a whole year’s worth of learning gains in math. As these conditions persist into the 2020-2021 school year, the perils grow, and the stakes for equity are magnified. Because the pandemic is hitting cities and communities of color hardest, we’re seeing cases even within individual cities of higher-income white children returning to classrooms, while lower-income students of color continue struggling with insufficient virtual learning.
When children are not attending school in person, they are not only missing out on vital education that is hard to deliver virtually; they are also abruptly without services they rely on and support from educators and professionals trained to connect them with resources and ensure their most urgent needs are met. As many schools returned to virtual instruction this fall, students are approaching almost a full year without those supports and services—which include access to healthy food, care for their physical and mental health, caring adults tasked with ensuring their safety, and federally mandated supports for marginalized students.
Congress has thus far provided some financial relief for the education system, including $13.2 billion for K-12 schools in the CARES Act passed by Congress in March, but most analyses suggest the investment will fall far short of what is needed. The reality is children have been suffering from unmet needs ever since schools closed their doors, making their needs this fall that much more dire. As schools remain unsure of how they will safely reopen, there is not currently an end date to this suffering. Congress must fully fund the programs and systems that support our nation’s children while they are out of school and invest in the public school system so that when schools can safely reopen, they will do so ready to meet the needs of children who have experienced significant learning loss, children newly experiencing poverty or homelessness, and children experiencing types of trauma that we cannot fully comprehend yet.
To learn more about the critical role school programs and supports play in our children’s lives and what is needed amid the pandemic, download our policy brief here.