Learning loss is a serious pandemic problem and the kids are not OK

When schools closed to in-person learning in March of last year, the only thing parents knew for certain was that their kids were losing crucial learning opportunities. Now, almost a year into the pandemic—and with millions of children still learning virtually—we’re just starting to see the impact of those losses.

Recent data shows that the pandemic is widening the learning gap and compounding racial disparities that have long plagued education systems. A national assessment from fall 2020 showed that white students were between one and three months behind in mathematics, but Black and brown students were three to five months behind in their learning.

Meanwhile, parents continue to harbor deep misgivings about the quality of education students are receiving right now. A recent EdChoice poll found that more than half of parents continue to be uncomfortable with the idea of sending their children back to school. At the same time, a survey by Education Next found that two-thirds of families participating in remote or hybrid learning believe their child is learning less than they did when attending school in person.

Memphis mother Jouy Thomas understands exactly why parents are so concerned. Like so many kids this past spring, her 7-year-old son, Jace, was given a crash course in online learning when his school was forced to close.

“When the pandemic first started, Jace had to do things a bit differently than other kids,” she said.

Her son’s dual diagnosis of autism and ADHD meant that his education plan was designed to include more one-on-one interaction with his teachers and behavioral therapists. But once Jace’s education team had to move all those interactions online, things got exponentially more complicated.

“We’d have to be in a dedicated space, at his computer, ready to learn for at least four different sessions during his school day,” his mother said. “That’s a lot for him.”

Thomas, who runs her own digital marketing agency, was working from home at the time, which offered her some flexibility. Still, she said that keeping her son engaged and focused on his teachers quickly became the equivalent of a full-time job. And if her paying job needed her at the same time, she said the decision was clear but costly.

“I always chose his education. I would always put his needs first. And I know it was the right thing, but it caused me a huge amount of anxiety," she said.

Thomas said that as a single, working parent, she's sending him back to in-person schooling.

"There’s no way I can do a full workday and be fully present for him, too," she said.

Far too many Memphis parents are grappling with the same complicated decisions right now, said David Jordan, president of Agape Child and Family Services.

Agape's big goals are to reduce child poverty and keep kids out of the foster care system. They do that by offering wraparound services for whole families that include workforce development, school readiness, and trauma-focused support. The 800-plus kids they work with live in 10 apartment complexes across the Whitehaven, Frayser, and Hickory Hill neighborhoods.

Jordan said demand for Agape's programs has increased dramatically since the pandemic began.

“We’ve seen a significant number of families slide backwards because of COVID. We did a survey at the end of December and found that 47% of people in our communities were dealing with job loss or a drop in income. Fifty-five percent were worried about their ability to pay for rent, utilities, and food," he said.

Jordan, who also serves on Tennessee’s COVID-19 Child Wellbeing Task Force, said that the prolonged and unpredictable nature of the pandemic has exposed families to toxic levels of disruption and stress. The large and small impacts, he added, will almost certainly have disastrous effects on children’s academic progress.

“This pandemic has only deepened our focus on the impacts of toxic stress and trauma. Those issues, plus the need for mental health supports, have all been exacerbated under COVID. And with the ongoing threat of job loss and eviction, hopelessness and depression have certainly gone up," he said.

But the saving grace, he added, has been an unprecedented level of parent engagement in student learning.

“In a lot of communities [outside Memphis], attendance in school has been abysmal: 30% or lower in some places. We started with a goal of 60%,” he said, adding that parent engagement is a key factor in keeping attendance rates high.

“Since the pandemic, we’ve seen parental engagement go way up. And as of January, some 71% of the 807 school-age children we serve were attending school at acceptable levels—and that more than exceeds the national norm.”

To help parents stay engaged and to overcome the potential widening of the education gap for Memphis students, Jordan said his organization has launched a number of new supports aimed at elevating student achievement. They've established a homework helpline. They've also partnered with the Department of Human Services to donate hundreds of age-appropriate and culturally relevant books and learning tools for at-home learning.

“We even deployed a number of parent or peer coaches to help parents advocate for themselves and their students from an educational standpoint," he said.

Those resources are currently only available to families in the Whitehaven, Frayser, and Hickory Hill neighborhoods, but Jordan said he hopes Agape will soon enter into more partnerships with faith leaders in other Memphis neighborhoods so the resources can reach much further.

“[Improving] these matters of learning loss, of economic mobility, is about hope and hopefulness, but it’s also about justice,” he said. “These are systemic matters that we have to step into with a real, lasting, system-wide focus.”
[This article is funded in part by ACE Awareness Foundation as part of a series on adverse childhood experiences in Memphis, including the people and organizations offering innovative solutions to protect and heal the city's youth.]
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Tiffany Thomas-Turner.