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July 20, 2021

Faculty voice: How pandemic school closures left children behind

William Schmidt is a University Distinguished Professor and director of the Center for the Study of Curriculum Policy in the College of Education. The following faculty voice is edited for length and repurposed content from a story WalletHub ran titled “2021’s Most and Least Educated Cities in America.”

Children have been robbed of over a year of the education to which they were entitled — negatively impacting the knowledge, skills and reasoning abilities that are critical in today’s society.

Consider mathematics, a hierarchically structured language that has become critical in today’s technologically oriented and data-driven world. For example, a question we should ask is, “Will the absence of what is not covered in a normal year of 8th grade or covered incompletely or hurriedly due to the pandemic, prepare those students to take algebra or the appropriate next course that they normally would take?” Except for the most talented mathematics students, the answer is a resounding, “No.” This is likely true of other subject matters as well especially English (reading and writing), science and foreign languages.

Parents, educators, society writ large, but especially policymakers must not only recognize and understand but more importantly must address this point. Such a discussion will precipitate political controversies and battles. Although uncomfortable, it is not an excuse for no action.

The impact of this has and will hurt all children, but it will be especially disastrous for lower social-class children. The harm is not only to their academic preparation but also to their physical, social and emotional well-being.

I can speak to this both as an academic and as a parent. When my daughter is asked, she responds, “I hate school. It is so boring and all I do are the exercises on the computer but don’t think I am learning anything.” Additionally, during the height of the pandemic her sports activities and social gatherings were also canceled. That negative attitude toward school coupled with the academic gaps now carries her into her first year of college.

Recent research I have published shows that in the U.S., almost a third of the inequality in student performance between children with lower social-class backgrounds versus those with higher social-class backgrounds comes from the differences in what students are taught due to their social class. That disadvantage comes as the distribution of opportunities to learn is impacted by the inequitable distribution provided by schooling.

The pandemic-related reduction in both the amount and the nature of the courses has only exacerbated those inequalities upon which learning is based.

Aside from the obvious disadvantages associated with altering the mode of instruction, the reduction in the total hours of schooling and the cancellation of academic activities which affect all students, there were additional negative consequences that more severely affected lower-social class students. These include such examples as lack of computer access, lack of a strong digital connection, lack of parental guidance during school hours due to job responsibilities and the inability of poorer schools to provide alternative modes of instruction. Children from lower social-class families likely began the COVID-imposed break already well behind in the nature and amount of opportunities to learn afforded to them by schooling.

That said, we will all feel the negative impact of the pandemic in both the short and long term, but none more so than school-aged children and especially those from lower social-class families. To not act on behalf of every child, is a symptom of moral indifference.

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