February 19, 2021
The Congressional Joint Economic Committee, chaired by Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee, recently released a report called “What’s Next for Schools: Balancing the Costs of School Closures Against COVID-19 Health Risks.”
The report seeks to discuss the results of school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic against the risks of spreading the COVID-19 infection if schools were to open up again.
Interestingly, it’s apparent that school closures harm students, but it’s not clear from the current data that in-person schooling significantly contributes to the spread of the disease.
In fact, when looking at student outcomes, school closures have not been good for students on the whole across the nation.
Here are some interesting takeaways.
Decreased mental health
According to the report, there have been significant mental health implications for students when they could not go to school. In fact, the report says school closures impact everyone; this includes the “mental health of parents, students, and teachers.” The report also says extended school closures have implications on developmental progress, in part due to the fact that “early childhood education is dependent on sensory and social experiences that are not easily replaced at a distance.” This means that young students are especially vulnerable, because the way most of them learn best has been removed as an option for them.
Impacts on social skills
With significantly reduced social interactions due to school closures, it’s no surprise that parents are concerned about social skills. The report states that in a 2020 Pew Research Center survey, “47 percent of parents with young children said they were more concerned about their children falling behind in social skills than they were before the pandemic.” It turns out that having students communicating or socializing virtually did not absolve parents of their concerns. Even before pandemic restrictions were put in place, according to a Pew Research study, “71 percent of parents with children under 12 reported being at least somewhat concerned that their children were using screens too often.”
School closures, not surprisingly, had negative impacts on academics. According to the report, a late fall 2020 survey found that “66 percent of teachers said that most students were less prepared for grade-level work compared to last year.” In fact, 27 percent said that “a majority of their students were significantly less prepared.” Furthermore, 56 percent of teachers said that they “covered half or less of last year’s material.”
The situation was worse for low-income students. One estimate said that low-income students will lose 12.4 months of learning compared to the overall average loss of 6.8 months, and that’s assuming a complete return to in-person instruction in January 2021.
Any policy decision has unintended consequences. As the pandemic continues, policies should support innovations that create (1) hybrid in-person options – like pandemic pods – so students can be in environments that allow them to have sensory experiences and opportunities for socialization, and (2) safety nets for students’ academic progress, especially those from low-income families. These could include policies that support homeschooling, pandemic pods, education savings accounts for a la carte needs and more.
As Utah policymakers, including school leaders, think through educational adaptations for this pandemic and other extenuating circumstances in the future, we should be sure to factor in the impacts of school closures.
Good civics education policy already exists in the law. Let’s look locally to determine how well our schools are teaching what is required of them by law.
The last year has been dominated by concerns about health – not only from the COVID-19 pandemic, but also from the effects on well-being and mental health due to the social isolation the pandemic response has sometimes required.
This latest expression of federalism continues what the data suggest may be a new trend in American governance and civic affairs, illustrating that federalism remains alive and well in America.