What kids lost when COVID-19 upended school

A year and a half of pandemic has left many children struggling academically and emotionally

A small group of students in a lecture hall, wearing masks, with empty chairs between them. Several are applauding

At Herbert H. Lehman High School in New York City, Yzabella Padagas, center right, talks about the mental and emotional toll of her father’s illness with COVID-19 during a roundtable on vaccinations. Students will be returning to school this fall with losses, both big and small, from those types of struggles.

Mark Lennihan/AP Photo

At the start of a school year, kids usually show up with oversized backpacks stocked with fresh pencils, crisp notebooks and snacks. This back-to-school season, many children will carry extra baggage.

Eighteen months of an unprecedented pandemic turned routines — including going to school — topsy-turvy. This fall, many kids are heading to their new classrooms toting traumas, worries and gaps in their learning.

What’s more, schoolchildren are returning as the pandemic is once again shifting the ground under our feet. Infections driven by the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus are putting new twists on questions over how to keep kids learning while still protecting unvaccinated children from illness. These burdens may profoundly change yet another school year.  

This year comes on the heels of one already marked by losses big and small. When school buildings abruptly closed in the spring of 2020 and school shifted online, many children lost regular time spent together with friends and teachers. Kids missed out on gym class, organized sports and time to goof around at recess. Some kids even lost their voices, digitally silenced by exasperated teachers doing their best to corral rambunctious students in virtual classrooms. “I’m muting you,” these kids were told.

But every student had their own personal pandemic experience. “You can’t generalize,” says Pedro Noguera, dean of the education school at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Half of the kids in the United States went to in-person school by the end of 2020, either full-time or on a hybrid schedule. Faced with closed schools, some kids instead had private teachers and learning bubbles. Others muddled along on their own, without solid internet access or a quiet place to sit.

Too many kids who rely on schools as a safety net went without consistent meals and regular check-ins from adults. More than 1.5 million kids globally lost a parent, live-in grandparent or other live-in relative to the pandemic, scientists estimated July 20 in the Lancet. School counselors had harder times reaching kids.

These pandemic losses were not spread evenly. Existing inequities deepened during the pandemic (SN: 9/8/20). Children from Black and Hispanic communities, and other traditionally underserved groups of kids, suffered some of the biggest losses.

Despite the variation, a patchwork of new data is beginning to put numbers to the scope of the problems that teachers, school administrators and families will face as students return to school. Understanding these challenges is a step toward helping kids come back to the classroom and, ultimately, thrive, says Kathleen Ethier, a social and behavioral scientist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Maybe one of the positive take-home messages from this past year and a half,” she says, “is that we understand now just how important school is.”

Learning loss

Getting a measure of academic performance that applies to all kids across the United States is tough. But early in the pandemic, students’ test scores hinted at the academic blows that were to come.

Comparing previous test score changes of kids in California to the changes from fall of 2019 to the winter of 2020 showed an overall academic lag. “On average, kids are two to two-and-a-half months behind where we would expect they would have been if COVID hadn’t happened,” says learning science expert Libby Pier of Education Analytics, a nonprofit based in Madison, Wis. Considering that a normal school year is nine months long, “that’s a quarter to a third of the school year they missed out on.”

The pandemic, of course, didn’t end in 2020; measures of academic slipping got worse as time went on. Elementary school students across the United States finished the 2020–2021 school year an average of five months behind in math and four months behind in reading, an analysis from the analytics firm McKinsey & Company, headquartered in New York City, shows. Those numbers, described in a July 27 report, don’t reflect all students. The analysis counted results only from kids who were in schools to take the tests; kids at home might have fared worse.

The learning lag was most pronounced in children from underserved communities: those who are Hispanic, Black, economically disadvantaged or learning English (SN: 9/8/20). Students in majority-Black schools ended the year six months behind where they would have been in both reading and math; students in white-majority schools lost four months of math and three months of reading.

It’s impossible to say to what extent school closures and shifts to virtual learning played in these lower-than-expected test scores. “Right now, we don’t have the evidence to conclude whether the impacts we are seeing are because students were learning remotely, or because there was a global pandemic happening,” Pier says. Kids could have also been struggling with losing a parent, caring for siblings or internet connection problems. Without all the information about kids’ lives, including their school experiences, she says, “we can’t answer the questions we want.”

Virtual, for some

One big question is how virtual school stacks up against in-person school. In the fall of 2020, the CDC’s Ethier and her colleagues asked 1,290 parents of 5- to 12-year-olds about the type of schooling available to their child, along with questions about the well-being of the family.

On 11 of 17 measures, families with kids who were doing partial or full-time virtual school were doing worse than those who attended full-time in person. Kids in virtual school were getting less exercise, less time in person with friends and less time outside. Parents of kids in virtual school were worse off, too, reporting mental distress, difficulty sleeping and conflicts between work and childcare. “Both in terms of stress that families feel, and outcomes among children, there really were significant differences” between in-person and virtual learning, Ethier says.

Ethier’s study, published March 19 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, “gives us some clues about who to watch out for and what to watch out for,” she says.

Families of color were more likely to have a student in virtual school than white families, Ethier’s team found. A recent study of New York schools revealed similar trends. Across the state, about 18 percent of elementary students had access to in-person school. But a racial breakdown turned up stark differences in who could go to school and who had to stay home. About 30 percent of white students could attend in-person school; for Black students, that number was only 5 percent, Ashley Fox and her colleagues report July 15 in JAMA Network Open.

group of young children sitting on the floor, spread out and wearing masks
In-person schooling was more likely to be offered by schools that served predominantly white, advantaged, suburban or rural areas, a study of New York state elementary schools found.Mary Altaffer/AP Photo

More advantaged students, such as white, suburban middle-class kids, had considerably more access to in-person school than other groups. Those other groups included students from urban areas, low-income families, students with disabilities and students experiencing homelessness, Fox, a health policy researcher at University at Albany in New York, and her team found.  

Even before the pandemic, schools had massive inequities; depending on where students live, they received different educational experiences. Fox’s new tally of which schools stayed open shows that the pandemic exacerbated these inequities. A caveat, Fox says, is that the researchers measured access to in-person school, not whether a family actually chose that option.

An emotional toll

These academic inequities are not surprising, says Noguera. “The real issue now is what we do about it.” It would be a mistake, he says, “to focus narrowly on academics and ignore some of the mental health challenges that kids will be bringing back with them.”

Depression and anxiety rates among children and adolescents are rising. More kids with mental health crises are turning up in emergency departments, scientists described in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report November 13. Compared with April through December of 2019, the proportion of children ages 5 to 11 who had mental health-related visits in the same months of 2020 increased by about 25 percent on average, from 782 mental-health-related visits per 100,000 total visits in 2019 to 972 such visits in 2020.  For adolescents ages 12 to 17, that proportion increased by about 30 percent, from 3,098 mental-health visits per 100,000 total visits in 2019 to 4,051 in 2020.

And in February and March of this year, there were an average of 855 emergency department visits a week for suspected suicide attempts among 12- to 17-year-old girls, an increase of about 50 percent over with the same winter weeks of 2019, scientists reported June 18 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

These studies weren’t designed to pinpoint causes of this increasing emotional distress. But hints come from surveys of families, such as Ethier’s. Parents of children who received virtual school were more likely to report their kids had worse mental or emotional health compared with parents of children who attended in-person school.

Interrupted schooling may cast long shadows, says Dimitri Christakis of Seattle Children’s Research Institute. Earlier studies have linked educational attainment with people’s future health, earnings potential and even how long they live. Losing out on school is a big deal, says Christakis. “Children’s lives, their longevity, their health, will be impacted,” he says, “not in the short term, necessarily, but over their life-span.”

As students come back into their classrooms, teachers, administrators and parents would do well to acknowledge all the burdens kids are carrying into class, and not just the academic ones. “We should be thinking of the restart, the return to school, as an opportunity to do things differently,” Noguera says. “To not just to go back to the way it was, but to really try to make schools much more responsive to the needs of kids and parents than they have been.”

If you or someone you know is suffering from suicidal thoughts, please seek help. In the United States, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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