There has been nothing but awful news about the unnecessary COVID-related shutdown of American schools. Study after study and a mass of anecdotal evidence show the harm done by the forced lockdowns.
Yet more research, released in January, extends the grim scenario. A meta-analysis of 42 studies across 15 countries assessed the magnitude of learning deficits during the pandemic, and finds “a substantial overall learning deficit . . . which arose early in the pandemic and persists over time. Learning deficits are particularly large among children from low socio-economic backgrounds.”
The analysis finds the losses are larger in math than in reading and in middle-income countries relative to high-income countries. The learning progress of school-aged children slowed substantially during the pandemic and overall, students lost about 35 percent, of a school year’s worth of learning. One of the studies included in the analysis found that the average public school student in third grade through eighth grade lost half a year of math learning and a quarter of a year in reading.
Two countries, Sweden and Denmark, managed to avoid the upheaval. Swedish children experienced no learning loss because they were not subjected to mass school closures during the pandemic. While Denmark did have closures, it is theorized that the lack of learning loss could be attributed to the country’s “reliable digital infrastructure with Denmark being one of the absolute top-scorers in digital skills, broadband connectivity, and digital public services in Europe.”
Another recent study by the Institute of Educational Studies’ School Pulse Panel reveals that about half the students in the U.S. entered school in September 2022 below grade level in at least one subject.
The findings from the School Pulse Panel are very similar to the results of a survey compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April 2022. According to the CDC, a survey of nationally representative public schools showed that 49 percent of students began the 2022-23 school year behind grade level in at least one subject. The percentage is significantly higher compared to a typical pre-pandemic year, in which just over a third of students are behind.
The bad news isn’t all about academics, however.
The School Pulse Panel also notes that more than 80 percent of U.S. public schools reported “stunted behavioral and socioemotional development” among students because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, 70 percent of public schools saw increases in students seeking mental health services since the start of the pandemic, 56 percent of schools experienced an increase in “classroom disruptions from student misconduct,” and there was a 49 percent increase in “rowdiness outside of the classroom.”
Unless things change in a hurry and learning losses are reversed, the country’s current crop of K-12 students will grow up to be less educated, lower-skilled, and less productive adults. Per Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University economist, they will earn 5.6 percent less over the course of their lives than students educated just before the pandemic. Dr. Hanushek maintains that the losses could total $28 trillion over the rest of this century, adding, “The economic costs of the learning losses will swamp business cycle losses.”
One enduring result of the school closures is that many kids are not returning to their local public schools. In fact, U.S. government-run schools have lost well over a million students since the start of the pandemic, and many schools are closing as a result. Using data from the U.S. Education Department, the Wall Street Journal reports that public school enrollment fell by more than 1.4 million students to 49.4 million nationwide between fall 2019 and fall 2020—a decline of roughly 3 percent. The newspaper adds that the following school year, enrollment failed to return to pre-pandemic levels and remained roughly flat.
Where are the students going?
Growing enrollment in private and charter schools—which typically stayed open when government schools were shuttered—is contributing to the decline in traditional public school enrollment.
Homeschooling is booming, having almost doubled nationally since 2020. The Census Bureau reports that between 2012 and 2020, the number of homeschooling families remained steady at around 3.3 percent. But the National Home Education Research Institute reports that during the 2021-2022 school year, there were 3.135 million homeschooled students in the U.S. or about 6 percent of the total.
The pandemic also ushered in a new era of hybrid homeschooling—where a student typically spends a day or two in an institutional setting and the rest of the time learning at home.
Also, statewide school choice programs are advancing in unprecedented numbers. Iowa and Utah have just initiated universal choice programs. Additionally, 10 states are gearing up to add parental choice programs or increase their existing ones his year.
The silver lining in all this is that many parents have awakened to the fact that a one-size-fits-all unionized bureaucratized behemoth just may not have their children’s best interests at heart. It’s sad that it took a global pandemic—not to mention radicalized classrooms—to get to this point. But better late than never.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared at For Kids & Country.