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Kids, Parents And Experts Weigh In On What Another Disrupted School Year Means


You know, this is the third school year that's been disrupted because of coronavirus, and so many of the challenges that made spring 2020, fall 2020 and spring 2021 so tough...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: It was hard to get the teacher's attention.

CORNISH: ...Remain.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: My learning definitely took a slight decrease.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: I would say I probably interacted with my teachers maybe six or seven times throughout my sophomore year. That's it.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: No, not a slight. Probably a pretty drastic decrease.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: Virtual was - it was hard because I didn't get it see many people.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: I was sad because I missed hanging out with my friends.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: And learning with different 'cause they can't do, like, an up-close example, because well, we're on a screen.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #7: If you needed help and a lot of the other kids were getting their questions answered, by the time I finally had my turn, we were already a ways ahead.

CORNISH: We spoke to several kids and their parents about their concerns as the school year begins. And a big worry for parents - how will last year's mess of a school year affect their kids this year?

LASHAUNE STITT: And there wasn't that constant engagement. It was more so, OK, well, you need to get this done. And if you don't have it done, you're going to get a zero, or it's going to be marked missing.

CORNISH: That's LaShaune Stitt. She's 51, lives in Maryland, and she has two kids. Her daughter is a senior in high school, and her son is a freshman. LaShaune says she is more concerned about her son this year since he's entering high school. She says he hasn't been as engaged in his classes. And as an educator, that bothers her.

STITT: And in the push for getting the assignments done, even though he wasn't retaining anything - I can ask him a question from last year, like what book did you read? And he was like, I don't know.

CORNISH: Trying to remember information from the last school year is something many students struggled with, students like high school senior Lia Benner in Alaska.

LIA BENNER: It's so difficult to retain anything because there's so much - like, the stressors of the world that's going on right now, the material that you're learning is going to be not in first place of everything else that's going on.

CORNISH: And that lack of engagement and difficulty retaining information is showing up in test scores.

ROBIN LAKE: Reports are showing very consistently that kids learned less. For the average American student, it's several months less learning. And so what's really concerning, though, is when we dig into the numbers, we see that the math scores are really behind and early literacy scores behind as well.

CORNISH: This is Robin Lake, a researcher who has combed through several studies about how the pandemic affected learning. We'll hear more from her in a bit. But it's not just math and reading that took a hit. Mental health suffered, too.

KATIE OLSON: When she wasn't on camera, sometimes she would be angry. Sometimes she would have outbursts. Sometimes she would just express frustration.

CORNISH: That's Katie Olson. She has two daughters. Lia we heard from earlier. Here she's talking about what online learning was like for her 11-year-old daughter Carmen.

OLSON: You could tell the magnitude and the duration of everything really weighed heavy on her trying to understand where her place was in the world.

CORNISH: So where are American schoolchildren as they begin another school year in the shadow of the pandemic? That's something I spoke about with Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Education - we heard from her a minute ago - and Katie McLaughlin, a psychologist at Harvard University. They both had the same opportunity to hear the voices we just heard, and they had this reaction.

Katie McLaughlin, which of those voices stood out to you as you think about what this disrupted school year has been?

KATIE MCLAUGHLIN: As I listened to those conversations, the piece that stood out the most to me was the mother who was expressing her child feeling angry, feeling frustrated. And as someone who's focused a lot on the impact of the pandemic socially and emotionally for children, across a range of studies, we've seen that about twice as many children are reporting meaningful symptoms of depression, anxiety or behavior problems than before the pandemic.

CORNISH: And what does that look like in a kid? I don't know if you're talking about a 5-year-old or a 15-year-old.

MCLAUGHLIN: So in young children, this might look like worry about interacting with a remote platform, as you heard several children express, concerns about going back to school, fear for safety of their parents or other family members. For other kids, it can look more like anger outbursts, difficulty paying attention to things that they used to be able to without problem. And, of course, this is a concern as children return to school because we know that these types of mental health problems can negatively impact their performance in school.

CORNISH: Robin, knowing what you know about learning loss from last year, what do you actually worry about, right? What are you - what is your concern about this generation of learners?

LAKE: The first thing I think we need to do is make sure that, as much as possible, kids can stay in school this year. I mean, I hate to say it. It's a very basic thing, but keeping kids safe and committing to making sure that they can stay learning in person throughout the year is a very important starting point this year.

CORNISH: It sounds easy, but politically and depending on where you are, that's a tough one.

LAKE: Right. So I think it bears saying. We've got to make that commitment - safe and learning throughout the year. I think we can expect going forward that, you know, if it's not a pandemic we're facing, there'll be other disruptions in schooling and in kids' lives. So we really can't afford a public education system that's not responsive and resilient to those kinds of things. So as we go forward, I think the challenge in front of us is how to use this opportunity to shift, become a little bit more nimble, a little bit more responsive, a little bit more individualized.

CORNISH: And, Katie, for you, looking ahead or things you're going to be looking out for in terms of challenges, or just being back in school, physically kind of make things better.

MCLAUGHLIN: I would love to expand on some of the points that Robin made about what schools can be focusing on the educational side or academic side by also highlighting some things that are important to consider in terms of supporting children's social and emotional well-being during this transition back to school.

So first, schools are going to need to be prepared for the fact that kids are going to be exhibiting more symptoms of mental health problems than usual. There's going to be more anxiety, more frustration in the classroom than in a typical year. And as a result, schools are likely to be seeing many more students who need more intensive mental health supports than in a typical year. You know, building on the additional educational supports that Robin mentioned, schools are going to need to be able to offer those types of supports and services to a larger number of students to support their well-being this year. And this is especially true in the communities that were most impacted by the pandemic, which have historically been communities that are least likely to have access to good quality mental health services at school.

And a final point I would emphasize is that as we transition back, schools really need to focus on reconnecting and building relationships with students, both with teachers and among students themselves, as a first step to make sure that students feel connected and cared for in their school community. I know everybody is very concerned about learning, but establishing those supportive relationships with students after a year and a half of remote learning is going to provide an important foundation that's going to support that better learning over the next year.

CORNISH: That's Katie McLaughlin, a Harvard professor and clinical psychologist.

Thank you for being with us.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: And Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education - that's at the University of Washington - thank you to you.

LAKE: Thank you, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.