The busy holiday season is here, and before we know it, many of us will be gathering for parties, visiting relatives and ringing in the New Year with friends. (Now is a good time to stock up on at-home rapid tests and high-quality masks and to consider getting an updated booster, if you haven’t already.)
Schools are also winding down the first half of what, by many accounts, was the first truly back-to-normal school year since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
As we approach winter break, we thought we’d take a look at how the school year is unfolding during this stage of the pandemic. I spoke with my colleague Sarah Mervosh, who covers education.
What has the school year looked like so far?
Masks are not required in an estimated 99 percent of districts, according to Burbio, a school tracking site. I think by and large there’s a recognition in schools that the coronavirus is here to stay, and we’re learning to live with it.
Last year, we heard a lot about behavioral issues and mental health issues. Students were still adjusting from the traumas and the disruptions of the pandemic and adjusting to being back in the classroom. But this year, I’m hearing less about that and more about the urgency around helping students recover academically.
How are students doing academically?
During the pandemic, kids learned less. We got a sense of how seriously they were affected this fall with the results of a key national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests fourth and eighth graders in math and reading. The results were pretty devastating.
Eighth grade math scores fell in 49 out of 50 states. Only about a quarter of eighth graders were proficient, down from about a third in 2019. Fourth graders fared a little better: There were declines in 41 states in math, with just 36 percent of fourth graders proficient in the subject, down from 41 percent in 2019. Reading ability declined a bit less across the board, but scores still fell in more than half the states. In both fourth and eighth grade, only about one in three kids were proficient.
Read More on the Coronavirus Pandemic
- Long Covid: People who took the antiviral drug Paxlovid within a few days after being infected with the coronavirus were less likely to experience long Covid months later, a study found.
- Updated Boosters: New findings show that updated boosters by Pfizer and Moderna are better than their predecessors at increasing antibody levels against the most common version of the virus now circulating.
- Calls for a New Strategy: Covid boosters can help vulnerable Americans dodge serious illness or death, but some experts believe the shots must be improved to prevent new waves.
- Future Vaccines: Financial and bureaucratic barriers in the United States mean that the next generation of Covid vaccines may well be designed here, but used elsewhere.
The stakes are high for kids because establishing literacy in early elementary school is important for their future success in high school and beyond. Similarly, it’s important for eighth graders to be set up for success as high school freshmen, a crucial transition year. And districts and schools are on a tight timetable to use pandemic relief money to help kids catch up.
There were three rounds of pandemic relief funding, and the last one, at $123 billion, was the federal government’s single largest investment in American schools. That’s about $2,400 per student. At least 20 percent of the money has to be spent on academic recovery and needs to be allocated by 2024. This is a big year for actually spending the money and getting the interventions that kids need.
What approaches are working?
There has been a lot of focus on tutoring. When done in small groups of three to four students with a trained tutor multiple times a week during the school day, it can be quite effective. It can be even more effective than lowering class sizes, for example, or summer school.
Some experts have advocated extending the school day or year, and lots of places are doing summer school. No one strategy is going to be the thing that is potent enough to help kids recover.
What about the argument that every child experienced the pandemic, so if they’re all a little behind, it might make less of a difference?
This is a very important question. I can see why it’s appealing to say, “Well, everyone was affected, so why does it really matter? This whole cohort of children is sort of in a similar place.” But that’s not actually true.
We know that in fourth grade math, for example, Black, Hispanic and Native American students lost more ground than white and Asian students. This deepened divides in outcomes, because white and Asian students were already scoring at a higher level for many reasons, which include structural societal advantages. And we are also seeing a troubling drop-off among the country’s lowest-performing students, particularly among younger students and in reading. So it is the very students who were struggling most coming into the pandemic who were most affected, and will now need the most help.
What does the future look like?
The pandemic and everything that came with it disrupted kids’ lives in huge ways. So that means that this recovery is going to need to be long-term. I’ve talked to people who are concerned that one day, when this is all sort of in the rearview mirror, we’re going to forget that the pandemic happened and we’re going to blame some kids for being behind. Or we’re going to say, “Well, these kids recovered from the pandemic easily. Why didn’t those kids?” It’s important to remember that some kids have a higher mountain to climb. They have a longer path to recovery, and this is not going to be something that is fixed overnight.
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Your school year
We recently asked students how being back in the classroom felt this year. Thanks to all of you who wrote in.
“It’s really stressful. I’m growing more nervous, anxious and stressed constantly. I sleep less, constantly worrying about everything and nothing. I feel like I have no relaxation time, that I can’t breathe. Covid times has made me incredibly anxious, and I don’t know how to calm down. My mind is too active.” — Yuxuan, Paris
“The school year started off really strong, but around mid-September the overall atmosphere of my campus changed drastically. Everyone began to suddenly slump into a deep depressive state and fall behind in their work. Professors were affected, too. Many of them would come to class drained and not even remotely enthusiastic about what they were teaching. I would hear students talk about failing back-to-back tests and just not caring.” — Nicholas L., Rohnert Park, Calif.
“The school year hasn’t been completely terrible, but it hasn’t been perfect. I feel like lots of students lost the ability to socially mature, resulting in a kind of split between their maturity level and actual grade level. I was in the seventh grade when everything stopped so I missed a chunk of middle school. Returning to school has been hard especially because I lost so much motivation and I never had the desire to really get it back. My biggest concern is that I won’t be prepared to enter adulthood because there was a gap in adolescent socializing.” — Zen James, Miami
“Overall, I would say that I am thrilled to be back in school and am having a fun and enriching experience. Seeing the full faces of my teachers and peers — and being forced to roll out of bed instead of opening a Zoom meeting on my phone — has definitely helped concepts in the classroom stick. For me, the larger concern is the decay of my healthy habits. Covid (and the online school) enabled me to sit in my room for hours on end, practically developing an entertainment dependency. I often scroll through my phone or watch videos for hours, and there are many times I glance at the clock in awe at how much time has flown right by me.” — Jake Glasser, Mercer Island, Wash.
“My school year so far has been difficult. I’ve noticed that I’ve distanced myself from my peers. I’m usually a hard-driven student with a strict schedule that I push myself to follow. Ever since the pandemic began and my school was pushed online, my will to stick to that schedule diminished. I’ve never felt burnout this way before Covid.” — Presha Kandel, Conroe, Texas
What else we’re following
In what was most likely his last appearance at the White House, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the Biden administration was optimistic that “we’re not going to see a repeat of what we saw last year” when the Omicron variant swept through the country.
Outbreaks are testing China’s efforts to fine-tune its pandemic restrictions.
These photos show scenes across China of disruptions from lockdowns.
Violent protests have erupted at the world’s biggest iPhone factory in Zhengzhou, China, the BBC reports.
Here’s how immunocompromised health experts are approaching the holidays.
The Atlantic asks, Will the flu and R.S.V. always be this bad?
A new study found that among cisgender women and nonbinary people who were assigned female at birth, only 61 percent of cases could be connected to sexual contact.
Thanks for reading. We’ll be off Friday for Thanksgiving. Stay safe this holiday, and we’ll be back Monday. — Jonathan
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