Our Take / Published Jan 03

Kids are hurting. School-family partnerships, not closures, are the solution.

Temporary closures may be inevitable this month. Moving forward, let's focus on minimizing disruption and supporting families to get students back on the right track.

In Massachusetts, 37,000 more kids need substantial academic support in math this year, compared to pre-pandemic times.

Let that sink in for a minute. These are the students who scored in the lowest achievement category in math on the 2021 MCAS. In raw numbers, 50,000 students landed in that category in 2019; in 2021, 87,000 did.

If we put those 37,000 children in a single school district, it would be the second-largest district in the state.

As we collectively weather another frightening surge—and by extension, manage another round of debate about closing schools—it’s time to be honest: The kids are not all right. Before we close schools again, we need to be very clear about the tradeoff: real, lasting damage to our children.

American students are exercising less, missing school more often, and reporting sharply higher frequencies of mental health issues. If we don’t use every strategy in the book to keep schools open—and double down on helping students get the support they need, academic and otherwise—the pandemic will take an even more devastating toll in the years to come: preventing a generation from achieving their dreams.

“Before we close schools again, we need to be very clear about the tradeoff: real, lasting damage to our children.”

We should start by being direct about the impact of the pandemic on student learning. That’s not easy; given the magnitude of suffering experienced by children and their families throughout this pandemic, it has become controversial to talk about “learning loss.” Millions of children have lost loved ones. What difference does it make if they fall behind in math?

It is certainly true that in the face of a global pandemic, we needn’t obsess over whether our kids remember their multiplication tables. But this isn’t about scores. It’s about longer-term outcomes that really matter for children’s futures. Recently published research shows that test scores as early as third grade can predict outcomes like high school graduation and readiness for college coursework—even when controlling for factors like race and socioeconomic background. Tests don’t capture everything about students. But they do provide meaningful signals—and the signals right now are telling us to pay attention.

Across the country, kids have been progressing at slower-than-typical rates. This pattern is clearest for students who were already struggling before the pandemic: Pandemic interruptions to schooling have exacerbated existing education gaps. Students who normally receive special education services haven’t received them. Struggling readers have seen progress slip away.

The good news is that academic trajectories can change with support. Through our work at EdNavigator, we’ve seen what’s possible when parents are given access to the right kinds of help for their kids. When students get the support they need, their likelihood of reaching milestones like high school graduation goes up. A third grader who is struggling in math today does not have to become a high schooler at risk of dropping out. But giving so many children so much support won’t happen by accident.

It also won’t happen quickly. Instead, we need to dig in for a long-lasting rebuilding process, making purposeful investments to ensure that temporary losses do not become permanent. To start, we need to level with parents about how their kids are doing in school. This doesn’t mean placing blame on schools for learning setbacks: Much of what happened was out of teachers’ hands, but we still need to be real with families.

We also need to do everything in our power to prevent any further school closures during the Omicron surge (and those of any future Greek letters, too). This might mean making big sacrifices in other areas, like shuttering bars and indoor dining for limited periods of time with the explicit goal of keeping schools open. It also means using the test-to-stay protocol the CDC recently endorsed, so students who have been exposed to COVID in class don’t need to stay home, as long as they continue to test negative.

Realistically, we know that staffing shortages may make it impossible to keep schools fully open throughout this surge. But let’s do everything we can to ensure that they can be open for safe learning as much as possible—and not imagine that switching to remote learning is an easy fix with no long-term consequences for kids.

Finally, as we move through and beyond Omicron, we need to invite families to be partners in the rebuilding effort. Schools could use some of the federal funding for COVID recovery to invest in family support and engagement. Comprehensive parent-teacher conferences offer a good starting point. The usual 10- minute conference is insufficient to take stock of a child’s post-pandemic needs and develop a forward-looking plan. Let’s use some of that funding to offer teachers additional pay for extending the school year by one week, and use the time now to guarantee each family a thorough, collaborative conversation with their child’s teachers. States could apportion some of their recovery funds to subsidize after-school tutoring and other support for students who need it, too.

Before anything else, schools should convene educators and families to talk about what their community needs. Helping young people “recover” will require trust between schools and families, substantial investments, and a clear-eyed look at the data. COVID has prevented our kids from experiencing childhood to its thrilling fullest. We cannot stand by and allow it to prevent them from reaching their fullest potential, too.