Scenes from a Pandemic, Volume 6 – Education and the Class of COVID-19

Governor Wolf closed all K-12 schools in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for 10 business days, starting on 3/16/20. On 3/23/20, he extended that order to 4/6/20, probably pending another review. Schools in neighboring Delaware are closed until 5/15, probably also pending review. Some states (Virginia, Kansas) have cancelled the rest of the 2019-20 school year.

Because this blog was created as a place where civility is mandatory, I don’t get into politics here at all, and I will say only that I am not a Democrat. Far more importantly, right now, I am grateful for the orders of Governor Wolf and all of the governors who have closed schools. They have almost certainly saved the lives of children and educators, including me.

I’m a school psychologist, so I spend most of my time evaluating kids for possible educational disabilities. I know the kids who are having the hardest time, the ones who are struggling to learn, struggling to maintain their attention, struggling with their emotions and behavior, and the parents and teachers who care about these kids. I’m sure that there are some children who have it easy, but I don’t know them.

At the moment, I’m thinking about four school districts in the Commonwealth. I won’t name them here, and the names don’t matter. Two are upper-middle-class, though not wealthy overall, and two have large numbers of students who live in poverty. We can’t talk about the COVID-19 pandemic without talking about economic status and we have to talk about how it affects children differently based on how much money their parents and school districts have, and wondering how this will change those children in the years to come.

One class

One of those upper-middle-class districts checked with its students in advance of the order to close the schools, learned that only a very small percentage lived in homes without wi-fi, and issued mobile hotspots to the students who needed them. The other district may have needed to issue mobile hotspots to a few students, I don’t know, just that it wasn’t necessary in the particular school that I know. All of those students had access to the internet at home.

Officially, schools closed on 3/13/20 and will not reopen before 4/6/20, at the earliest. What has been happening in those districts with the ability to educate students online? The students are attending classes by computer, something around 4 hours of instruction daily. It’s been a difficult for many children and adults, but everyone is adapting. The kids who had something in the first place are getting more, and please understand, if these were my children then I would want them to get everything that anyone could give them. Those two districts are absolutely right to use their resources to continue to educate their students while school is officially closed. That’s how those teachers and computers and hotspots are meant to be used.

Different class

Compare those schools, though, to the two that I know with fewer resources and far more students in poverty. Before the mandatory closure, one of the biggest concerns was to find a way to get two meals per day to the students, because in these districts, as in many like them, the day starts with breakfast, Hungry kids have a harder time learning and they won’t get breakfast at home. That’s in addition to lunch. Both of these schools did the job, connected with community resources to provide those meals, took care of that basic need. That’s what schools do.

If a family has a hard time feeding a child before she leaves for school, how likely is it that the family has a computer and wi-fi? If the school has to tend to that bottom level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the whole basic food and survival level, how likely is it that the school could also provide computers and mobile hotspots before it closed due to COVID-19? What happened in those schools before they closed?

In both of those schools with fewer resources, teachers assembled packets on the copier, two weeks of lessons and homework. If you were a kid, any kid in any school, what would you do if your teacher gave you homework for two weeks and told you to bring it back when school reopened? Would your packet stay in your desk or leave your school? If it left the school and made it to the bus, would it leave the bus by the window or with you by the door? You can answer honestly. Kids are just kids.

In other words, if you have enough money, or at least go to school with enough money, then you are spending these two, now three, weeks getting some education even though school is officially closed, and again, I say good for those children, teachers, and parents. If you can do it then you should, no question.

However, if you don’t have enough money, or at least you don’t go to a school with enough money, then you left your classroom on 3/13 with a copied packet of lessons meant to last for two weeks. The closure has already been extended to three weeks. What if K-12 schools don’t reopen for the 2019-20 school year? I don’t know the answer to that and I won’t speculate, but I know that people are asking that question. How are you going to learn math and reading from March to August?

Starting behind

Reading may seem like a visual process, and part of it is, the orthographic aspect, knowing that a vertical line with two semicircle curves is an S, and that S and s are the same thing, or that a taller vertical line that meets a shorter horizontal line is an L, and that it’s still an L when it looks like l. That’s the visual element of reading, but much of reading is auditory, knowing what sounds the letters make, the process of decoding a new word, what your teachers and parents meant when they told you to “Sound it out.”

Most students in wealthier areas come to kindergarten knowing the letters, and from there work on phonemic awareness, the sounds that letters make. Most students in less-wealthy areas have to spend a large portion of kindergarten learning the letters. By second or third grade, many children from families or schools with lower incomes are far enough behind in phonemic awareness that they are having significant trouble reading, which is to say, they have educational disabilities. They start behind and they stay behind.

It’s not just the academic element, which is easily important enough, but what is happening to the kids with Intellectual Disabilities, with Autism, with severe ADHD, with significant emotional and behavioral problems? A major event like a pandemic diverts resources from the community mental health and medical agencies that usually support these families. If quarantining in place is hard for you, imagine doing it with a disabled child, and especially one who was just barely getting what he needed before COVID-19 changed all of the rules and became the focus of the medical system. Many of these children and families can be thrown into crisis by minor changes in their care. COVID-19 is a major change.

The future

Maybe on 4/6/20, after three weeks away, schools will reopen. The kids in the first two districts will have spent three weeks learning and gaining some skills. The kids in the second two districts will have spent three weeks probably not learning and probably losing some skills. What if K-12 schools don’t reopen for the 2019-20 school year?

By statute, the school year must end by 6/30/20. The new fiscal year for schools starts on 7/1/20. Maybe summer programs will become available to all students and everyone can make up lost instruction. I don’t know. There are major impediments to that, and if it doesn’t happen then the kids who left school with two weeks of homework on 3/13 will start school in August even further behind.

Imagine your favorite teacher from your senior year of high school. It’s been long enough that it’s OK for you to admit that you had one. Now imagine that teacher missing much of the year for health problems, and multiple substitutes doing the best that they could, but still you did not get a full, typical year of instruction. Now imagine taking that same subject in your first year of college and realizing, immediately, that you were behind your classmates. Could you catch up to them? Doing that would mean learning what you should have learned in high school at the same time that you were also learning in your college course. Could you do it? Maybe, if it were only one course? Now imagine that it was all of your courses. Could you fill gaps in all areas of your senior year of high school without falling behind in your freshman year of college?

Apply that to the kids in lower-income schools right now, the students who should be in school but aren’t right now. To catch up to their peers in middle class schools, the kids who might have taken home a packet of two weeks’ worth of homework will have to learn faster than their peers, learn what they missed and then what they would have been learning next year, all at the same time. For most of them, that’s not possible.

There is a saying in disaster relief circles, with some variations, but it amounts to the idea that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. Every major problem that comes along, even hurricanes and disease, has a human element to it, is in some way aggravated by human action or inaction.

For the students who were in K-12 school in Spring 2020, the Class of COVID-19, everyone will be at least a bit behind where they should have been in June. The students who had little on 3/16/20 will come out with less, and that difference will probably endure into whatever year they enter the market for work or college and have to compete with peers who attended class online during the COVID-19 pandemic. The only way to catch up is for students who were growing slower than their peers under normal conditions to suddenly become able to grow faster than their peers, under more difficult conditions, and that’s not possible. Those schools that found a way to keep teaching were right to do it, right to take care of their students, but the gap between those who have and those who don’t will be larger when the pandemic ends. The Class of COVID-19 is going to have a hard time, and America is going to miss what these kids should have gained, should have been able to offer, long after the virus is gone.


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