Who’s Left Out of the Learning-Loss Debate

After nearly three years of patchwork rules, as school districts attempted to manage the coexistence of public education and public disease, this was finally the year to get back to normal for millions of American students. Where I live, in Philadelphia, getting back to normal meant the resurfacing of normal public-school troubles: in the first week of the new school year, school officials announced that more than a hundred schools would be closing early. There were no outbreaks of disease or illness sending kids home. Instead, getting back to normal meant returning to classrooms that cooked in the August heat, making it unsafe to keep students inside. Philadelphia is no stranger to hot summers, nevertheless, only forty-three per cent of schools have sufficient air conditioning. The district predicts that it won’t reach its goal of outfitting all schools with air-conditioning until 2027.

The hot air closing Philadelphia public schools was only one snapshot of the troubles that came with the resumption of normalcy. In Columbus, Ohio, for the first time in nearly fifty years, teachers authorized their union to strike the school district over issues ranging from building conditions to class size and pay. In the largest district in the state, more than four thousand teachers and education workers formed picket lines demanding district commitments to air-conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter, to decreased class sizes, to guaranteed art and music instruction, and, of course, to improved pay. In Seattle, the first days of school were also delayed when teachers struck to demand expanded mental-health and multilingual services for students, a smaller ratio of students to teachers in special-education classes, smaller class sizes in general, and, of course, improved pay.

These labor actions underscored the frustrations of teachers, who have had to navigate not only the pandemic but also political harangues about their curricula, as well as insufficient pay and other long-standing issues tied to their actual work as educators. Teachers were already leaving the profession, but stress induced by the pandemic accelerated the pace. Between January, 2020, and February, 2022, upward of six hundred thousand teachers have left the profession. According to the National Education Association more than half of teachers say that they will leave teaching earlier than they originally anticipated. And nearly half of public schools across the country have reported full- or part-time teaching vacancies driven by resignations.

Adding to the list of issues dogging public schools, a report released in September found that millions of fourth graders have fallen behind academically during the pandemic. The assessment, delivered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, showed the largest decline among fourth graders in reading scores in thirty-two years and the first decline in math scores since the organization began testing students in 1969. There were declines across all racial and class groups, but, predictably, the largest declines have been among poor and working-class students, who are disproportionately Black and Latino.

Analysts have labelled this as “learning loss,” and many have blamed school closures and remote instruction in the course of the past two years as the culprit. Essentially, schools serving largely Black and Latino populations were more likely to turn to remote teaching. And in major cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, schools serving poor and working-class students did not fully reopen until the fall of 2021. The experts contend that the learning loss experienced, if not recouped, may cost each student more than forty thousand dollars in lifetime earnings, adding up to around two trillion dollars.

These dire assessments and forecasts have led Republicans to bellow that they were right to demand the reopening of schools in the fall of 2020, before vaccines existed for adults or children. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida and a potential Republican candidate for the Presidency in 2024, claimed, “These lockdown states, the unions locked these kids out of school—they didn’t want them in class, and the result has been huge learning losses, unprecedented learning losses.” But it isn’t just the right touting a distorted version of the recent past. Anya Kamenetz, a correspondent for NPR and the author of “The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children’s Lives and Where We Go Now,” wrote for the Washington Post in September that Democrats, in order to regain their reputation as the party for public education, should apologize to the “vocal minority of ‘open schools’ parents… who want it acknowledged that they were right all along.” Kamenetz also wrote that Democrats need to “come clean on how children were harmed by prolonged school closures,” and should “stop running from terms such as ‘learning loss.’ ” Michael Bloomberg was even more specific in laying blame, saying that “leaders of public-school teachers unions wrongly insisted that requiring teachers to return to work endangered their safety. It didn’t help that many progressive politicians sided with unions over the well-being of students.”

The sudden onset of the pandemic has been the most catastrophic event in recent American history, making the expectation that there would not be something called “learning loss” bizarre. The idea that life would simply churn on in the same way it always has only underscores the extent to which there have been two distinct experiences of the pandemic. One for people who experienced the upheaval but were able to sequester themselves away from its harshest realities, buying groceries online, contemplating buying new houses that could better accommodate working from home, and finding new ways to weather the inconveniences of the isolation imposed by potential sickness. There was another gruesome reality, reaped by poor and working-class families in the surreal numbers of people who have died.

By official counts, more than a million people died in fewer than two-and-a-half years, undoubtedly an underestimation of the actual number of COVID dead. Millions more have been left in an altered state called long COVID, facing uncertainty as the virus continues to confound. As in almost all matters, the burden has weighed heaviest on those with the fewest resources to withstand a crisis. A study conducted by the Poor People’s Campaign and the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network found that, in the United States, the three hundred counties with the highest death rates have an average poverty rate of forty-five per cent. As the economist Jeffrey Sachs, who worked on the study, explained, “The burden of disease—in terms of deaths, illness and economic costs—was borne disproportionately by the poor, women, and people of color. The poor were America’s essential workers, on the frontlines, saving lives and also incurring disease and death.”

This body count includes the parents, grandparents, and other family members of the Black and brown students whose school assessments slipped during the past two and a half years. By August, 2020, when the clamoring of mostly white parents to return to in-person school reached a cacophony, fifty-seven per cent of Black American adults said that they knew someone hospitalized or dead as a result of the virus, compared to thirty-four per cent of white American adults. By February, 2021, nearly three quarters of Latino adults said they knew of someone dead or hospitalized from the virus. These realities were born out in the reluctance of Black and brown parents to send their kids back into school buildings. Critics of remote learning almost always focussed on the mild consequences for most children who became ill with COVID, as if these children lived and were schooled within a vacuum and not among adults for whom the consequences could be dire, if not deadly. By the end of February, 2022, more than two hundred thousand children under the age of eighteen—more than one out of every three hundred and sixty—had lost a caregiver to COVID-19. Black and Latino kids lost their caregivers at nearly twice the rate of white children. As one expert reminded, “Bereavement is the No. 1 predictor of poor school outcomes.”

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