Schoolchildren are among those hit the hardest in any disaster, and the pandemic was no exception. Suddenly, schoolchildren all around the world lost access to critical resources – teachers and tutoring; classmates and friends; and for some, even meals. And then only after toiling through almost two years of online school (for the lucky ones) and finally returning to actual learning in an actual, real-life, school, did everyone realize how much the pandemic had really affected the world’s schoolchildren.
Schools were largely unprepared when the pandemic hit. Teachers and schools lacked the appropriate resources, such as proper training or software to effectively teach online school. Students sometimes lacked proper devices (there were many cases of Zooming through mobile phones), as well as proper family resources, such as a helpful environment or supportive parents.
In many ways, the pandemic was an extended-for-too-long summer, a time during which many students experience the “summer slide”, or a large loss in learning. While no children physically lost entire months of school during the pandemic, the education that they lost was enough to take up several months. Thankfully, according to Thomas Kane, most of the missed learning seems to have taken place in the spring of 2020, when the shock of the pandemic was at its most painful point.
Everyone was affected differently. Older children would have been better able to focus, but younger children, with their shorter attention spans, would have been much more distracted. Children from poorer families would have had much less equipment to adapt to virtual school, and consequently would have done much worse during the pandemic. They would also have spent much less time in school (more than twenty weeks) than their better-funded counterparts over the course of the pandemic.
To push through the pandemic’s effects, schools are planning to push forward with new material while reinforcing the old material by helping students with new concepts instead of revisiting old material. Some schools are offering what is called “high-dosage tutoring”, or half an hour of extra learning, two or three times a week, in groups of no more than three. Other schools are considering adding more days to the school year to make up for pandemic learning loss.
Perhaps the most important aspect of school is the social aspect. Being able to interact with teachers, classmates, friends, and others was something taken almost completely for granted. During the pandemic, students, especially elementary schoolers, for whom classroom bonds play a critical role in development, lost access to all these social relationships. Students were unable to get to know their teachers and classmates, while teachers were unable to engage with a screen filled with black boxes. Not being able to see their teachers meant that students were less likely to ask questions or get help if they didn’t understand a concept. There is a vast difference between listening to your teacher talk through Zoom and listening to your teacher talk in a classroom.
Mental health also took a turn for the worse during the pandemic. Living during the pandemic contributed to an uptick in both fear and panic. The lack of a social life for all during the pandemic made it much harder for people with mental issues to get help or seek treatment. Dealing with the deaths of loved ones also became much harder. The pandemic affected the mental health of many more than just schoolchildren. Many adults, especially health care workers, reported an increase in mental health conditions and even suicidal thoughts.
The pandemic also served to highlight the vulnerability of the less-well-off schoolchildren. The World Food Program, a UN agency, estimates that 390 million schoolchildren receive free meals of some sort. During the pandemic, these students lost access to the free meals that their schools and government provided. The effect was especially pronounced in poorer countries – some schools went from serving a quarter of their pupils to less than 1%. For many students, this meant the loss of both a free breakfast and a free lunch. Since adequate energy is needed for studying, this decrease in food also led to less productivity during the pandemic schooling period. This is especially important in developing countries, where around 90% of the world’s children live, and where after the pandemic, two-thirds of ten-year-olds cannot understand a story. Giving children adequate fuel for their developing minds is perhaps the most efficient way to combat the learning loss that occurred during the pandemic.
You could say that the pandemic was a chance for everyone to come back stronger. Teachers, students, and schools could all work together to ensure that all children are at learning standards again through high-dosage tutoring or extra learning. Since learning is now in-person, people with mental health conditions once again have access to the help and support they need. Friends can meet together, and students are able to learn more while genuinely interacting with their teachers. Needy children have access to the meals they need to fuel their brains again as well. The pandemic slide was real, but with everyone working together, it is still possible for everyone to climb back up to the top.