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Editorial, 4/4: Learning poverty will linger after virus

Editorial, 4/4: Learning poverty will linger after virus

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Students wearing masks

Lincoln Pius X students make their way between the lunchroom and classrooms Wednesday. One of the ways a University of Nebraska Medical Center official believes would help slow the spread of COVID-19 in the state would be to reduce density in schools.

Knowledge lost by students over the pause in classes during June and July has a name – “summer slide.”

Time and again, studies have found that students indeed lost some of what they’d learned over the span of less than three months without regular classes.

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, the collateral damage – and time away from the physical classroom – is much longer for many students. Researchers have named this trend “learning poverty,” but the long-term ramifications of it aren’t yet known, largely because some students have yet to return to school.

Depending on their individual circumstances, K-12 students have lost somewhere between a few months and more than a year (and counting) of in-person school, which includes both the academic and social growth that take place within their walls. And, like so many other effects of COVID-19, the full impact of learning poverty is unknown – but will be greater if we don’t act upon it sooner.

Again, it’s still very early. But the preliminary data at Lincoln Public Schools illustrates the challenge ahead.

Elementary and middle school students saw their math scores on national standardized tests fall significantly from fall of 2019 to fall of 2020. (Reading saw a smaller decline.) The number of middle and high school students failing multiple classes increased by nearly half over the same time period – with more than one in four fully remote learners falling into that category.

School officials in the capital city are studying a series of programs and interventions for within the regular school calendar and summer school. They’re making absolutely the right moves, but the challenge is magnified by the fact that everyone is playing from behind more than a year after schools abruptly closed last March to stem the virus’ spread.

This situation is not unique to Lincoln; every school district in Nebraska and the United States has been affected and disrupted by the ongoing pandemic. And though the sharp rise in vaccinations will help check COVID in the short term, the impact of the virus will far outlive the closures and cancellations it caused.

Part of the reason for concern beyond the classroom is the amount of important services delegated by society to schools, which help teach social skills while providing a safe haven away from home.

In many Title I schools, for instance, free breakfasts and lunch are integral parts of ensuring children suffering from food insecurity don’t head home hungry. School closures and remote learning sparked by the pandemic underscored that not all children enjoy stable care or reliable internet connections at home.

The unforeseen stress test that COVID provided illustrated – and, in many cases, expanded – the cracks in many societal structures, with K-12 education among the most affected. Addressing learning poverty, and the structural causes that will only exacerbate it, must be addressed now and long into the future.

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