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The Devastating After-Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Students

by David Engle | Feb 17, 2022 | 9 min read

It’s been two full years since we were all introduced to the word “coronavirus” and the concept of social distancing and the fashion do’s and don’ts of face masks. It seems and feels so long ago that we were all blissfully ignorant on these topics, yet it was only two calendar years—it’s amazing how it can feel like both an eternity and a sliver of time simultaneously. Yet here we are in 2022, masks still on (in some cases), schools still sporadically closing or reverting to remote/hybrid learning, and kids (as well as adults, make no mistake) scarred for life and still on edge and anxious about their health, still paranoid about the spread of COVID-19, still reeling from the death and illnesses of loved ones, still depressed from the isolation they experienced during lockdowns and quarantines, still catching up on the learning they lost throughout school shutdowns and lackluster distance learning, still fearful of how another outbreak or—even worse—the next pandemic will tear them down and force them to start all over just as they’re beginning to put it all back together again.

Sound dramatic? Maybe, but this is fact, not fiction. What kids are experiencing in the (near) aftermath of COVID-19 is a serious problem, and one that could haunt them for many years if it’s not properly addressed in the near future. 

The Return of School Closures

Just when we thought we were reasonably out of the woods—at least as far as school closures are concerned—the Omicron variant of the virus spread like wildfire and brought the school year of several regions throughout the country to a screeching halt.

  • In December 2021 and early January of this year, many school districts in Northern New Jersey either closed or switched to remote learning due to a virus outbreak.
  • In Flint, Michigan, schools have been operating remotely since their winter break and will not open for in-person learning until February 7.
  • In Washington state, two school districts have been using remote learning for certain schools due to recent outbreaks.
  • Schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after finally getting back to in-person instruction, were recently forced back to remote learning thanks to rising case counts.

These are just a few of the many instances throughout the U.S. where schools have had to shift gears because of the pandemic. According to the K-12 School Opening Tracker operated by Burbio, the week of January 10 saw nearly 7,500 schools across the country closed for in-person learning for at least one day. In 10 states, more than 15% of students were affected by closures during the fall of 2021. And while rising infection rates and the rapid spread of Omicron has certainly led directly to school closures, another reason is that so many schools are simply understaffed and unable to handle in-person learning with skeleton crews.

Or, as is the case in some schools, if a teacher is absent and a substitute can’t be found (a rampant problem in many school districts), someone with little to no experience in the class subject is forced to step in. Obviously not an ideal situation for students who are still scrambling to catch up on the lost learning from COVID during the initial wave of school closures and remote learning.

And staff shortages aren’t isolated to teachers and faculty. Aides, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodial crews—this pandemic has impacted all facets of school staff to the point where closures become necessary due to the lack of backup help or replacement workers.

COVID Learning Loss

We covered this topic earlier in the pandemic, but more data is starting to emerge related to cumulative learning loss between 2020 and 2022. And the numbers are staggering.

Research from late 2020 by the World Bank estimated that a seven-month absence from school would increase the share of students “learning poverty” (defined by World Bank as “being unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10”) from 53 to 63 percent; it was predicted that another seven million students would drop out of school. The Brookings Institution now predicts that learning poverty will increase to approximately 70 percent.

Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education stated in late 2021 that “the potential increase of learning poverty might have a devastating impact on future productivity, earnings, and well-being for this generation of children and youth, their families, and the world’s economies.” What does that look like in dollars? Well, based on the research of World Bank, UNICEF, and UNESCO, about a $17 trillion loss in lifetime earnings (or about 14 percent of the entire globe’s GDP) for this generation of students.

And the outlook is even more grim for families living in poverty as well as many minority students, as remote learning set them even further behind than their more-advantaged peers because many low-income families are unable to afford high-speed internet service or computer equipment.

McKinsey & Company research backs all of this data. Their analysis showed that students, even those who have been able to attend school in person during this school year, remain behind in math and reading. Some students are making up lost ground, but others are still lagging behind. And once again, ethnicity plays an instrumental role in this disparity. According to McKinsey’s research, students in schools where African Americans make up the majority are five months behind their standard levels in math and reading—students in white-majority schools are now only two months behind. Taking into account that students in Black-majority schools were already nine months behind at the beginning of the pandemic, they are now a full 12 months behind their white peers.

But it’s not just academics in which students are losing ground—school attendance as a whole is still a major problem in many schools. According to McKinsey, actual school closures have affected 9 percent of students, but quarantines and other learning disruptions have impacted 17 percent. Even more alarming is the rise in absenteeism; 2.7 times the number of students are on the way to being considered chronically absent from school, with numbers looking even more dismal for low-income students. When correlating chronic absenteeism with high school graduation rates, the numbers are not pretty—an additional 1.7 to 3.3 million eight- through 12th-grade students could drop out because of the pandemic.

There may be light at the end of the tunnel, however, as some assessments have shown student improvement during the early part of this school year, though still below pre-pandemic levels. McKinsey’s data sample of the Curriculum Associates i-Ready assessments, which covers nearly three million students across 50 states, suggests students are four months behind in math and three months behind in reading compared with students in matched schools in previous years—these results demonstrate a one-month gain from the spring, so performance seems to be trending in the right direction as far as regaining COVID learning loss, though it still remains a serious issue—especially among minorities and low-income families.

The Mental Health of Children

Of course, learning loss is a critically important topic for all students today. But even more vital is the well-being and mental health of kids across the world. And while kids are generally pretty resilient, the mental and emotional toll the pandemic has taken on children (and adults) of all ages is going to have long-lasting, lingering effects. They’re already showing.

School staff, pediatricians, and mental health care workers are reporting that schools across the country are swarming with students suffering from mental health problems. Unfortunately, two full years into the pandemic, those struggles have continued rising–particularly since the fall of 2020, when the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital Association, and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry declared a mental health emergency for children and adolescents.

Sadly, but not unexpectedly, things only got worse in 2021 as the pandemic continued to rage on. The Children’s Hospital Association reported that there were more than 47,000 mental health visits to emergency departments at 38 U.S. children’s hospitals during the first three quarters of 2021–which marked a nearly 40% increase over the same period in 2020.

Among the prevalent issues impacting kids are bullying and fighting (which some attribute to kids acting younger than they should at their age) as well as self-harm and suicide. That same Children’s Hospital Association report revealed even more staggering statistics from those 38 children’s hospital ERs during the first three quarters of 2021: The number of suicide and self-injury cases was 47% higher among 5- to 8-year-olds and 182% higher among 9- to 12-year-olds than the same period in 2016. So, not only are more kids taking (or attempting to take) their own lives…the ones doing so are getting younger and younger.

On the surface, it seems unfathomable to ask why so many children are suffering mentally–but there are many layers to the seemingly obvious answer, “COVID-19.”

  • Kids have been mourning and grieving for nearly two years. The CDC estimated that 175,000 children have lost a parent or caregiver during the pandemic. This is even more pronounced for children of color, where death rates are higher among minorities. Compared to white children, Asian kids were nearly five times as likely to have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19, while Black children were nearly 2.5 times as likely and Hispanic kids twice as likely. Think about it this way for a moment…losing a parent or close relative is traumatic enough; that is grief that a child will carry forever. Now, compound that grief with the fact that these kids may now have nowhere to turn. Some of them became orphans, with no caregiver or parent to put food on their plates or pay for a roof over their heads. That is life-altering, and it’s not surprising that children’s mental health is suffering as a result.
  • Loss of friends, socialization, and fun. Yes, school is a place to learn, but socialization and participation are such integral parts of the school experience. And students lost all of that for about a year. Think about the students who were looking forward to proms, graduation ceremonies, sporting events, after-school clubs and activities, just to name a few. Add to that the casual socialization of talking to friends in the hallways, at lunch, during recess, and on the bus. And that’s just related to school. During the early stages of the pandemic, families were essentially on lockdown, meaning the only form of social interaction between friends and loved ones involved a phone, tablet, or computer screen. Kids missed birthdays, family gatherings, vacations, holiday traditions–while adults can rationalize this as being safe and cautious, kids (particularly young ones) have a hard time comprehending the complexities of the pandemic and why they can’t go to Grandma’s for Christmas or why they can’t have a birthday party with all their friends. Children and teens who were so used to the presence of friends and family had it all taken away from them, resulting in feelings of isolation and depression.
  • Lack of confidence. We already covered COVID learning loss, but one of the emotional scars it has left is on the confidence of students, particularly those who might have already been struggling. The pandemic set them even further behind–possibly even behind their grade-level peers–which has led to diminished confidence in their own abilities, and which, in turn, has contributed to the increase of school dropouts. Additionally, children had to deal with the anxiety and awkwardness of eventually going back to school and trying to re-establish relationships and…be social again. For many adults, it’s more or less an inconvenience–for kids in certain age groups, it can be devastating since they’re already hyper-self-aware to begin with.
  • Living in fear. This is no way for anyone, let alone kids, to live. Yet many still are–fearful of catching the virus, fearful of passing it along to a loved one, fear of dying, fearful of hospitalization, fearful of another wave shutting down businesses and destroying their family’s income, fearful of having everything good taken away from them at the drop of a hat. Children are fearful of these things because they have experienced them first-hand. And they’re still dealing with the emotional trauma and after-effects, unwilling and unable to go through it all again.
  • Not enough help to go around. With the meteoric rise of students in need of mental health services, it was inevitable that there simply wouldn’t be enough professionals and providers to handle the demand. Counselors, therapists and other mental health service providers have been consistently booked and/or not accepting new patients for nearly the entire duration of the pandemic. That leaves families little recourse but to seek help elsewhere, such as emergency rooms, which are already understaffed and overworked thanks to COVID-19.

How Homeschooling Can Help

While we’d love to tell you that homeschooling is the blanket solution for every COVID-related problem on this list, we can’t. After all, homeschoolers encountered many of the same issues as those in traditional schools–isolation from friends and family, the loss of countless life events, the deaths and illnesses of loved ones, to name a few.

But there are a few major aspects that homeschoolers did not have to deal with.

  • COVID Learning Loss. For just about all homeschoolers, there was no COVID learning loss…school continued unabated. When students in public and private schools had their education taken away, homeschoolers kept learning, which put them even further ahead than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. After all, homeschoolers already had everything they needed to keep going with their education as the rest of the world shut down.
  • School Disruptions. Similarly, school went on for homeschoolers as public and private schools shut their doors. This obviously allowed their education to continue which, as previously stated, helped homeschoolers avoid learning loss. But avoiding school disruptions also allowed homeschooled students to sidestep much of the anxiety and stress that stemmed from school disruptions and the resulting yo-yoing between in-person learning and remote learning and hybrid learning. As we covered above, the disruptions and uncertainty significantly contributed to many of the mental health issues plaguing students today.
  • Insufficient Remote Learning. This has been a topic of discussion since the first day of attempted remote learning. Schools simply were not prepared, teachers were not properly equipped, and students were not aware of what was in store for them. It’s been widely acknowledged that the first round of remote learning was an abysmal failure and one of the main contributors to COVID learning loss. Remote learning was significantly more productive in the 2020-21 school year, but it still left plenty to be desired. Homeschoolers, on the other hand, experienced some of the best remote learning there is. Bridgeway Academy, for example, offers Live Online Classes to students–these classes are taught by experienced, knowledgeable teachers who are trained in online learning. Simply put, they know how to run an effective, productive, and engaging online classroom.
  • Lack of Socialization. While most students were missing their friends and only keeping in touch via FaceTime, texts, and social media, homeschoolers…well, they were essentially doing the same thing. Except, they were still able to socialize with their classmates in school–primarily through virtual classrooms that promote collaboration and conversation. The homeschool community is also a reliable source of socialization, through other local homeschooling families and groups, so there was always a means to socialize before and throughout the pandemic.

As we (hopefully) near the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard not to reflect on how significant an event this has been. The pandemic is the younger generation’s John F. Kennedy assassination or 9/11 tragedy, landmark events that are seared into everyone’s minds for the rest of their lives. And as devastating as those days were, the cold reality is that the American COVID death count is nearly one million, and the after-effects that this generation of children is experiencing and will continue to experience is immeasurable.

If you’re contemplating making the switch to homeschooling, contact Bridgeway Academy at (800) 863-1474 to speak to a homeschooling expert who can help you make the transition.

David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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