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How schools and students have changed after 2 years of the pandemic

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

It's been two years since a global pandemic put a halt to our normal routines, including kids going to classes. No one knew quite how students might fare when schools closed due to COVID-19. At the time, NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz had to look to humanitarian crises to find comparable situations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: When we talk about students that are out of school for months at a time, you're looking at the Rwandan genocide. You're looking at Syrian refugees, Rohingya refugees, you know, students in West Africa during the Ebola crisis.

ELLIOTT: Two years on, schools are opened and masks are coming off. And Anya joins us again to assess how those predictions at the start of the pandemic played out. Hey, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Hey, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So at the time, you said research from different places around the world suggested that low-income and marginalized students would suffer the most academically and that the high school dropout rate would rise. Is that what happened?

KAMENETZ: Absolutely, those predictions were more than borne out. So there's been a lot of research on learning loss. The latest studies focus on reading. One study in Virginia found early reading skills were at a 20 year low this past fall. And that's in part because of something that was different in the United States than a lot of other rich country peers. We kept more of our classrooms closed for longer, and as a result, in the fall of 2020, there were large numbers of families who sat out pre-K and kindergarten altogether and kept young children home rather than struggling with remote learning. And the toll of all this - this learning loss - indeed, has been worse for low-income families, as well as for Black and Hispanic families.

ELLIOTT: What are the implications of that? Are these kids going to be able to catch up?

KAMENETZ: They absolutely can. It takes work. What research shows from places like New Orleans, where schools closed after Katrina is that it takes carefully tailored curricula and teaching. You can't rush ahead when a child is turning six or seven and they don't have the alphabet down. You have to continue to cover that new material while also providing extra group or one-on-one help. And the researchers I talked to said - bottom line, Debbie - we can expect it to take two to three years for these kids to catch up onto the trajectory that they would have been on had the pandemic not happened.

ELLIOTT: So two to three years - what does that mean for older students who don't have two or three years? Is that why there have been these dropout rates?

KAMENETZ: What we're seeing is exactly what experts predicted - that these older students, they get pulled into household responsibilities and paid work. Last fall, I talked to Dr. Lesli Myers-Small. She's a superintendent of schools in Rochester, New York, which has lost about a thousand students from the last school year.

LESLI MYERS-SMALL: We have some students that just - particularly older students - who are just saying, you know what? I got a job. I'm not coming back.

KAMENETZ: And, you know, we're seeing this downturn in college enrollment, as well. College enrollment is down more than a million students over the past two years. And there's huge implications for this for the economy, for our skilled workforce, even for areas like public health if educational attainment in the United States stays at that lower-level long term.

ELLIOTT: Now, one of the other things in your reporting back then was this connection between closing schools and the mental health of students. Tell us what we know about that.

KAMENETZ: Absolutely, so the literature from all over the world says that schools are a place for relationships, routine, stability and hope for children. And that is exactly what this pandemic took away. So, you know, we - of course, we have to start by noting an estimated 200,000 children have been either orphaned or bereaved by this pandemic just in the United States. And that is a major adverse childhood experience, a cause of toxic stress. And it's just one of the reasons that the surgeon general and many other experts have called youth mental health a crisis right now. One bright spot is that we do see schools using some of that federal relief money to beef up their mental health services. They're hiring people. They're training teachers. They're picking up that crucial role in children's lives again.

ELLIOTT: Good. Now, is there anything that was predicted in the research about school closures that has not come to pass?

KAMENETZ: So one of the possibilities I called out back then - I've been fascinated by research about innovation in education, and there are cases where when you have this huge disruptive break - Rwanda is one example after the genocide, Katrina - New Orleans - a crisis can be a catalyst to reinvent the school system. And that's not really happening right now in the United States. I mean, of course, kids have gotten laptops. Teachers - they figured out how to teach online. But we're hearing a lot more about back to normal instead of about what's next.

ELLIOTT: That's NPR's education correspondent, Anya Kamenetz. Thanks so much.

KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.