Imagine you are 9 years old. You should be brimming with energy—but instead you are still processing the grief of losing a family member to COVID-19. Or you are jaded after spending two years going back and forth between online learning and in-person schooling. Or you are kind of just confused on how to socialize with your friends again. Or maybe, all three.
Being a young student in American public schools right now is a bleak experience. And what is hard for the students is ending up also posing an almost existential challenge for thousands of teachers, who themselves have had no less of a traumatic experience the last two years. They’ve been through countless teachers’ strikes over wages, COVID-19 precautions, technology mishaps, Zoom school, masked school, and working without enough mental health resources. Now, school is back in session with (mostly) no masks—and teachers are often the ones on the front lines dealing with students who have not only suffered serious academic setbacks but also heavy emotional trauma.
I spoke to three public school teachers about how this school year is going so far. All three agreed: Their students are not where they should be, academically and emotionally. A big portion of their students are not only performing academically below their grade level, but are also behaving that way. Amy Smith, a fourth grade teacher at Leverett Elementary in Arkansas, told me she’s facing a classroom of 9-year-olds who are used to entertaining themselves, having spent about two years in a virtual learning environment while not always under constant adult supervision. What they haven’t learned to do is socialize. “We’re having to teach very basic skills, like sit in a chair, walk, empathy,” said Smith.
Seventh grade English teacher Kate Slenzak told me a nearly identical story—she’s seeing behaviors in the classroom that are two grade-levels below what she’s used to—seventh graders who are acting not like 12-year-olds, but like 10-year-olds. “Not only were they set back when they were sent home in March of 2020, but we had a whole year of weirdness, whether they were at home learning virtually, whether they were hybrid, whether they were learning in person but with a mask and six feet away from their peers with no extracurriculars,” she said.
When COVID-19 hit the United States, thousands of schools across the country scrambled to shift their classrooms online. Teachers immediately began ringing the alarm on how much learning loss their students were experiencing. Among K–12 public school teachers nationwide, 60 percent of virtual learning teachers said their students had more difficulty understanding lessons than in a typical school year, while 61 percent said they also had more students who experienced emotional distress. The Government Accountability Office concluded that students in all grade levels, regardless of in-person or virtual learning, struggled with obstacles that ranged from lack of appropriate workspaces and support to disengagement and absences. All of this has led to an unprecedented disruption in learning that’s likely to be felt for years to come.
If the breadth of the problem wasn’t clear enough, the latest test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showcased the sheer volume of learning loss across the entire country. Eighth graders’ math scores were 8 points lower than 2019, while fourth graders had a 5-point drop—a result lower than all previous assessment years since 2005. It’s a glaring red flag: Test scores can reflect whether a student will finish high school and can even predict economic growth, though they are just one of many predictors of a child’s success. There’s also the fact that American students just experienced a weird-as-hell two years of pandemic schooling while thousands also experienced grief and loss for the first time.
Teachers were tasked with the tall order of keeping things together—and they basically did it, under incredibly trying circumstances. That includes vicious attacks on them, with a survey by the American Psychological Association revealing thousands of teachers were verbally harassed and threatened by their students and their parents during the pandemic. Not to mention the extreme politicalization of education, with the entire country fighting over whether schools should remain open or closed. In the end, it didn’t really matter. The NAEP scores showed learning loss in every single state in the country, including in Texas and Florida, where schools opened sooner, and California, which stood out for its more cautious approach to school reopenings.
Rather than continue to relitigate the past, the teachers I spoke to just wanted to focus on students and their academic work, recognizing there will be an extended recovery time required to get everyone back up to speed.
So where do teachers begin? Well, it helps to put things in perspective. America’s school system was not properly serving every single kid before the pandemic. Heidi Crumrine, a high school English teacher in New Hampshire and the 2018 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, told me if there’s any good that came out of the pandemic, it was to jolt the system, and to show the urgency of existing inequity. “As educators, as a society, this is our moment,” she told me. “We’re going to decide, are we going to continue to do everything that we always used to or are we going to address these inequities?”
Minority students have historically been disadvantaged, facing all sorts of inequities ranging from access to books and extracurriculars to high student–teacher ratios and lack of access to school counselors. This is the same demographic that spent the last two years at greater risk of COVID-19 and experienced higher death rates within their families.
When Crumrine teaches, she differentiates her students based on their academic progress, grouping together the ones that need more direct instruction and those stuck in between different lesson plans. She’s making it a point to be more articulate and deliberate about what she’s teaching and why. For Smith, who teaches fourth graders, it’s more challenging than that. She’s facing a classroom that has a wide gap between those performing up to snuff and those who’ve fallen behind, so she’s started making appointments with her students. “No matter what happens, I’m going to stop what I’m doing, and at 2:15, you’re going to read to me,” Smith explained as one of her approaches to handling these discrepancies. Smith said that this kind of intensive scheduling has helped her figure out how to incorporate more individualized, small-group work to ensure all students get the attention they need.
Incorporating small group–style teaching is something Anya Kamenetz, a former NPR education reporter who has written multiple books on education, including most recently The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children’s Lives, and Where We Go Now, also recommended when talking to me about those dismal NAEP scores last month. Another way to do it is high-dose tutoring, which Kamenetz explained can be done a few times a week with specially trained teachers one-on-one or in small groups. But there’s a catch—this obviously takes a lot more time, or maybe even a second teacher. As Smith told me, if she had one wish for this school year it would be to have an extra adult in the room to help manage her small groups.
Many public school officials realize the immense task teachers are facing and are trying to coach them in these new methodologies. Iranetta Wright, superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools, told me she’s zeroing in on helping her district’s teachers differentiate those students with the greatest deficits and how to address it in small group settings. Teachers’ ability to use the technology everyone adapted to during the pandemic could help them continue to tailor learning and instruction to various students’ needs. Wright argued that the students’ laptops and Wi-Fi access the pandemic made necessities are still important tools teachers can use.
What about the social and emotional trauma students are simultaneously dealing with? Over 91,000 children in the U.S. lost a parent to COVID-19. Others missed important milestones like graduations and birthdays. The mental impact of those experiences can lead to difficulty thinking, learning, and concentrating, and severe loss can also lead to having trouble regulating emotions and forming new attachments to people.
“I’m less concerned about what grade-level kids are reading on and more concerned about how they are doing emotionally,” Crumrine told me. She thinks there’s a direct connection between a student’s social-emotional health and their academic stamina anyway—you can’t address one without the other. “Instead of arguing with one another about what should or should not have been done, complaining and moaning how poor these test scores are, say to ourselves, OK: We know what they need and we’re going to give it to them because we’re educators and that’s what we know how to do.”