Pandemic-related school closures are likely to have far-reaching effects on children’s well-being

A global analysis has found that children whose schools have closed to stop the spread of various waves of coronavirus lost academic progress and are at increased risk of dropping out from school. As a result, according to the study, they earn less money from work over their lifetime than they would have been had the schools remained open.

Educative researchers like me know that these students will feel the effects of pandemic-related school closures for many years to come. Here are four other ways the closures have affected long-term student well-being.

Academic progress

At the end of the 2020-2021 school year, most students had approximately four to five months late where they should have been in math and reading, according to a July 2021 report from McKinsey and Co., a global management consulting firm.

When the researchers looked at the fall 2021 data, however, they found students attending majority white schools are catching up. But students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds — including those who attend majority-black or low-income schools — lag even further behind. As a result, students attending majority black schools are now estimated to be a full year behind those attending majority white schools.

Differences may also vary by grade level. The high schools were closed more days in total than elementary schools. According to a recent report, 2021 graduation rates have plummeted across the country, and some education officials fear future promotions could be hit even harder. Schools have been quick to offer options such as credit recovery to boost graduation rates, leaving concerns about the quality of learning.

Leaders of colleges and universities have been preparing for freshmen with less knowledge, weaker study habits, and more difficulty concentrating than college newcomers in previous years.

Socio-emotional development

Even at the start of the pandemic, school closures were hurting the social and emotional well-being of studentsaccording to a review of 36 studies in 11 countries, including the United States By summer 2021, teachers and administrators in the United States said students experienced more emotional distress, disengagement, depression, anxiety, and loneliness than in previous years.

When schools resumed in the fall of 2021, large numbers of children in the United States had lost a primary caregiver in the year prior to COVID-19. A colleague and I shared our concerns about the anxiety and grief these students would probably feel.

In addition, 28% of all parents of K-12 children are “very concerned” or “extremely concerned” about their child’s mental health and social and emotional well-being. That’s down from a peak of 35% in the spring of 2021, but it’s still 7 percentage points higher than before the pandemic. Parents of black and Hispanic students are 5 percentage points more likely to be worried than parents of white students.

Schools and organizations have focused their resources on supporting students’ social, emotional and mental health. the US Department of Educationfor example, recommends, based on research, that teachers incorporate lessons on compassion and courage into classroom activities, and that schools set up wellness teams to support students.

States have said they plan to meet these needs with federal funds to help schools respond to pandemic. In Connecticutfor example, school districts will hire additional mental health support staff, provide social-emotional programs, and partner with local agencies to increase access to supports.

Behavioral habits

The return to in-person learning has been accompanied by the will of school leaders reports increase in student misbehavior and threats of violence. These increases were more likely to be reported in larger districts and where most students had taken remote or hybrid learning — rather than in-person instruction — in the previous school year.

Viral social media “challenges” – like memes on TikTok suggesting students “hitting a staff member” or skipping school on a particular day – certainly do not help educators provide safe and supportive environments.

The distress of parents also affects their children. Students whose parents are depressed, anxious, lonely and exhausted are more likely to misbehave at school – and this connection has grown stronger during periods of confinement when schools were closed.

Meanwhile, news reports show that students are miss more school than they were before the pandemic, with more children absent for more than 15 days of a school year. Given connections between chronic absenteeism and the increase in the school dropout rate, researchers warn this increase in missed school could lead to between 1.7 million and 3.3 million eighth through 12th graders not graduating on time.

Physical health

The adults suffered hair loss, irritated eyes, irritable bowels and skin breakouts following the pandemic. A study found that Chinese preschoolers whose schools closed during the pandemic were smaller than preschoolers in previous years, although the researchers did not observe any noticeable differences in weight change.

Schools can be a privileged place where children have access to physical activity and healthy food. Amid school closures, researchers are exploring the effects of losing those benefits. During the lockdowns in Italy, obese children doing less physical activityslept and used screens more and increased their consumption of crisps and sugary drinks.

In the USA, 1 in 4 families with school-aged children do not have reliable access to food. Abrupt school closures halted more than 30 million children free and discounted lunches and breakfasts delivered to school.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees school food programs, has granted waivers to let schools provide meals to meet the needs of their students. In Connecticut, for example, researchers have found that informing families of the wider availability and pick-up sites for take-out school meals increased the number of students who received food during the pandemic.

Time will tell if the costs of school closures will be worth the benefits. These early indicators show that decisions are not as simple as reducing the physical health risks of COVID-19. A comprehensive assessment would consider effects on all aspects of child well-being, including how various populations are affected.

Connection, collaboration and positive interaction are fundamental to healthy childhood growth and development. By working together, schools, families and communities can assess and meet the needs of each child reduce the lasting effects of school closures.

Originally posted in The Conversation.

Norma A. Roth