COVID-19 mitigation needed to reduce U.S. student learning setback

Students wear face masks on their first day of school after summer vacation at St. Lawrence Catholic School in North Miami on August 18, 2021. Photo: AFP

Results from the National Education Progress Assessment, commonly known as the United States’ “National Report Card,” suggest that the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak has caused serious learning setbacks for American students. . Across the country, math scores saw their biggest drop on record, and reading scores fell to 1992 levels. Nearly 40% of eighth graders demonstrated a lack of ability to grasp basic math concepts and no state saw an improvement in their average test scores.

It was the first such assessment in the pandemic era, considered the first nationally representative benchmark of how the country’s education system has endured the coronavirus. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona reacted bluntly to this: “Let me be very clear: these results are not acceptable,” he said.

Just as the pandemic has entrenched inequality, test results also show that black and Hispanic students have seen bigger declines compared to their white peers. As millions of students were forced to switch to home schooling, this put struggling students in more precarious domestic situations at risk as, overall, they had less reliable access to spaces and technology adapted to their educational needs.

The news is a huge hit against a nation already struggling to stay competitive on the international stage. American students are consistently ranked well below peer countries in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, setting them up for less success later in school life. This is reflected in the relevant rankings in higher education.

It’s important to note that the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t created new problems so much as it has inflated existing ones, like racial inequities and a lack of student-focused federal priorities. This immediately calls into question existing government policy and the need for more investment in education, wealth redistribution and serious efforts to address inequality and inequality.

At the same time, COVID-19 restrictions are not necessarily the problem. Keeping students in schools has been one of the main arguments used by some sectors of the political spectrum to make a nationwide “lockdown” or non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) related to the ongoing pandemic untenable. Proponents say the blows to student education are too big to implement serious strategies to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, an argument that has grown in popularity over the years.

But that’s misleading, because choosing between virus mitigation and student outcomes isn’t binary, just like economic outcomes. First of all, much of the basis of this argument is that children aren’t as affected by the coronavirus – which is a line of reasoning that has been proven wrong. Severe pediatric cases of COVID-19 are evident, as are related deaths, and the risk of prolonged COVID-19 is around 20%. Since we know the coronavirus can cause brain damage and learning disabilities, keeping children in unsafe classrooms should be a fail.

This is why many experts have compared the prevalence of COVID-19 in the United States to current generation cigarette smoke or leaded gasoline. These things caused serious health problems, especially for children, and were greatly reduced by government regulations after new information about their adverse effects surfaced. It is to be hoped that the eradication of COVID-19 will follow a similar path.

Similarly, keeping schools as they are presents serious health risks to teachers and staff. Additionally, successive waves of the coronavirus have often left schools inactive during peaks due to understaffing. Since the virus becomes more and more transmissible as it mutates, this issue becomes more and more important, which is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notoriously updated its guidelines for isolation and quarantine to help critical industries operate in the event of an increase in infections. in the workforce.

Therefore, rather than letting the virus roam freely, the end goal should be the outright mitigation or eradication of the virus.

An immunology expert, Dr. Anthony J. Leonardi, argued in an open letter that remote learning is desirable because there is no way to guarantee a completely safe learning environment. However, he argues that in cases where this is not possible, schools could implement masking policies and appropriate air filtration. It has long been established that COVID-19 is airborne, requiring a change in how NPIs are implemented to mitigate the spread of the disease.

Of course, policy makers will need a lot of political will to update school infrastructure to ensure adequate air quality controls. But it is a small price to pay for the educational future of the country. One thing is certain, however, and that is that academic achievement and public health are not one or the other; they are, in fact, inexplicably linked.

The author is an American journalist, columnist and political commentator based in Prague. [email protected]