Just as we are hearing about positive research efforts to combat the coronavirus in the relative near term, we are learning that some statewide school systems may stay closed through the end of the 2019–2020 school year. As of this writing, one state—Kansas—has affirmatively closed all its schools until the next academic year. Other states will likely follow in the coming days, including California, Arizona and Texas.
The critical question is what effect these closures will have on students, parents and guardians, teachers, staff, and administrators over the near and long term. What follows are some of my observations regarding what these school closings will mean in real terms to students across the PreK–6 pipeline.
What’s offered here are only predictions (albeit informed ones based on existing data on educational outcomes) because we haven’t yet experienced anything like this in our lifetimes. After identifying issues, the necessary next step is to ask how to ameliorate the problems that are likely to occur, now and in the months to come. That question is touched upon here but must be addressed at greater length in a follow-up piece.
Observation One: The effects of school closure on students will be far from homogeneous. Yes, it would be far easier if all students experienced similar responses. Age, race, ethnicity, gender, location, family history as well as family structure and cohesiveness, community support, economic status, and culture will all impact student outcomes. But we can say this: the vast majority of the outcomes on students out of school for 6 months will not be positive. And we can make some generalized observations if we remain keenly aware that they will not apply to all students in all locations in the same way.
Observation Two: Even if schools can move to online learning across the PreK–6 levels, there will be a myriad of issues. Start with the absence of hardware, software, and technical know-how for families; there are also shortfalls in teacher training with respect to effective online learning. Then, there are real problems with inconsistent bandwidth and Internet access across our nation. Add this reality: online learning is not an effective pedagogy for all students. These observations will lead to disparities in delivery of education and a likelihood that the educational equity divide will grow. This should worry us, as the effects of this divide are not short-term; individuals, families, and the workplace of the future will be paying a mighty price for these inequalities.
Observation Three: We have focused on school shutdowns to stop the spread of the virus and flatten the curve. That’s understandable. To the extent we are focused on learning, we are paying attention to content: reading, writing, math, science, history. But, there is critical non-content learning that occurs across the educational pipeline and if schools close, the acquisition and growth of these key life skills/psychosocial developments will be delayed. Consider this partial list of the types of critical, non-content learning that occurs in elementary schools: self-control; following directions; regulating behavior; group engagement; play and creativity; paying attention; fine motor and gross motor skills; development of sense of self and competence as an individual; prioritization.
Observation Four: The “summer slide” effect. Although there is now considerable debate about the existence and measurement of summer slide (a decline in test-measured academic performance after summer vacation), we have reason to believe that not being in school affects children negatively in terms of retention of content learning—and the longer the break, the greater the decline. According to some data, the more that is learned, the greater the content that is lost during gap periods. Some suggest too that there is a disparate impact on low-income children, as wealthier families can provide support and learning for their children that is unavailable or unaffordable to low-income families. Ironically, quarantines and shelter-in-place orders may act as unintended equalizers by closing these opportunities to all: museums, travel, concerts, tutoring, music lessons, and more become unavailable in face of a threat like COVID-19.
Observation Five: Many articles on school closings due to the virus focus on logistics and pragmatic questions. How will parents work when their children are home? How will homework or work activities be delivered? For students with learning differences of all sorts, how will they receive the added supports they need? Will there be grades? Will there be testing? Will students move up to the next grade in the fall of 2020 (assuming schools open in the fall of 2020)? Will some students be allowed, encouraged, or forced to “stay back?”
What these articles do not mention is the psychological impact—the trauma—of closures on students. School shuttering, which brings with it separation from friends, teachers, and support systems, has a negative impact on most students. Start with this: closures are destabilizing for students. (Value: stability). So is the absence of structure. In addition, there is a threat to safety—their own and that of their loved ones and friends and lack of a place/space where they can openly express feelings. There is the absence of personalized attention. (Value: subtlety). And, there is the absence of key non-familial individuals who are usually engaged with children: coaches, teachers, administrators, staff. (Value: someone(s)). Trauma eliminates these 5 Ss; their elimination is harmful to children. We need to find ways to restore the 5 Ss.
It is early but not too early to reflect on school reopening. Think about how students left all of their personal school belongings behind: what was in their cubbies and desks; what drawings and stories were on the walls and in the halls. Normally when new school years begin, a school is stripped of what was there in the prior year and new materials appear as teachers welcome new students. Will and should that happen now? (My answer is no; it would be hugely disquieting for children to lose their work and their “place.”) If they all return, should we keep students with the same students and teachers when school reopens? (Yes, to the extent it’s possible.) But, what about the students at either end of the school enrollment levels for the 2020-2021 year—those going into PreK and those moving from grades 5 or 6 onto middle school? (I have no answer.) Who should move ahead or stay behind—should we do immediate testing to gauge levels of learning? (No, given the anxiety-provoking nature of testing soon after returning.)
How will we begin the year? Will we welcome children as if they just had an extra-long summer vacation? (No, I hope not.) Surely, some of the typical questions teachers ask following time away must be adjusted substantially (we can’t ask: How was your vacation? Share what fun you and your family had.) Remember, teachers, administrators, and staff have been experiencing their own trauma; returning to school will not be an easy adjustment for them either. And, for the record, we are notoriously bad at transitions from one grade to the next, and from one school to the next.
Here’s one concrete suggestion to reflect upon now: we need to establish and continue relationships among students themselves, and between the adults in schools and the children they serve. This can be done using the Internet (if available), cell phones, text messaging, or even the US mail. Teachers can reach out to many in their classes with positive messages: they can sing a song, or read a book, or read a poem via phone or video.
The point is that between now (when schools are shut) and when schools reopen (whenever that is), we need to develop and maintain ongoing contact and connections with and among students. One of the best strategies for mediating trauma (not eliminating, as it cannot be eliminated) is connecting children to one or more non-parental adults who believe in them and will support them. We call these positive childhood experiences (PCEs) that can mitigate adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). We can and should set PCEs in motion—today.
Stated most simply: We can and should do something immediately help our students of all ages and at all stages who are not now in school. We owe them nothing less. We want and need them to thrive.