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Worse at math, better at tech: How COVID-19 impacted learning

(NewsNation) — The COVID-19 pandemic cost students about one-third of a school year’s worth of knowledge and skills over the last three years, causing many to fall behind in math and reading, according to a study released this week.

The stressors faced during learning remotely were not fixed as kids poured back into the classrooms, one of the researchers, Bastian Betthäuser, told The New York Times of the analysis of data from 15 middle- and high-income countries. 

“In order to recover what was lost, we have to be doing more than just getting back to normal,” he said. 

But while the education loss will be felt for years among students, the innovations in technology and at-home learning created because of the pandemic will reshape the education field for decades to come.

For better or worse, advances in technology and shifts toward virtual learning left their marks on students’ academic progress and emotional well-being.

Kids lost math and reading skills — the greatest decline in decades. Can they get caught up?

The skills lost over the pandemic were most felt in reading and math, data shows.

The average eighth-grade reading score was at its lowest point since 1998. And 2022 saw the largest-ever decline for fourth and eighth graders in math scores. 

Poorer students and students with learning differences were affected the most — with up to a 20% difference between the richest and poorest kids. 

Still, educators across the country are trying to find creative ways to help close those gaps, such as utilizing intensive tutoring plans that can be done virtually to reduce cost or teachers coordinating at-home visits to kids at risk of dropping out. 

“What we know is statistically students who miss a semester or are not successful in a semester, their likelihood of dropping out or not returning to school does increase every semester that they are unsuccessful,” principal Justin Ross-Hillard told CNN. “What we’ve adopted as a mindset is that we’re going to continue to chase after you.”

A mental health crisis is growing, but adults may be learning how to help

The state of kids’ mental health coming out of the pandemic is startling, with one in three parents reporting their child showing signs of emotional distress at least once a week.

Forty-four percent of American high schoolers feel persistently sad and hopeless. More than 60% of college students have at least one mental health condition, and these rates are even higher among students of color, poorer students and students from immigrant families.

The isolation during the pandemic coupled with economic uncertainty, racial reckonings and increased violence in schools weighed heavy on many students.

“The scope of so many of these tragic incidents happening, children feel like they’re living in an environment of threat, that if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere,” Dr. Marlene Wong told NewsNation after the Uvalde school shooting. 

The results will likely be long-lasting. Adolescent brains have a more difficult time recovering after trauma, leading to increased rates of severe anxiety and depression that can last into adulthood. Yet adults are learning to help kids cope better, too. 

One approach is called Psychological First Aid. It’s aimed at reducing the stress, anxiety and fear children feel in the wake of a crisis by showing teachers, coaches or parents how to build on the relationships that already exist. 

Other solutions include offering more counseling to make school a better environment for kids and teachers. 

Students who had a sense of support and belonging at school fared better, research shows. And teens who felt like they had a connection to an adult or their peers were significantly less likely to report feelings of sadness or hopelessness. 

Remote learning fast-tracked the education tech of the future

Although most students have returned to the classroom, technology adopted during the pandemic can be used to enhance even more traditional styles of teaching, according to research by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company

Higher education students in particular could benefit from technology like virtual reality for interactive simulations or in-class polls and breakout rooms to complement in-person lessons, according to the research.

Meanwhile, video conferencing remains relevant for group projects, while machine-learning apps and chat tools can help teachers draft tests and assignments. 

A separate report by the Pew Research Center also noted that more rapid advancements in online technology could create a more personalized learning experience that would allow students to choose from a “menu” of classes across different schools. 

While some have embraced the merging of technology and in-person learning, others have chosen to keep their education remote. 

One mother, Heather Fray, told NewsNation in 2021 that she never imagined homeschooling her two children, one of whom requires special education. But the pandemic gave Fray the opportunity to try it out, and she was surprised by the results. 

“I actually saw him thrive in a lot of his areas of struggle, more so than any of the years in special education combined,” Fray said.

The Fray family isn’t alone. The overall rate of parents who opted to homeschool their children more than doubled in the school year that followed the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Associated Press.

The pandemic made the digital divide very obvious. What will it take to close it?

The pandemic underscored the disparities in high-speed internet access and officials responded with legislation aimed at easing the burden for underserved communities.

Emergency programming that started in 2020 through the federal government helps low-income homes stay connected through the pandemic, offering connected devices and discounted internet service to eligible families.

Rural communities, many of which still struggle with internet connectivity, found some relief through services like this program, which helped them provide hot spots and other equipment to students. 

More than 15 million households nationwide were registered through the program as of last week

Communities also worked to address the digital divide on a local level.

In Illinois, for example, a 2020 program called Chicago Connected provided free broadband access to pre-K-12 students and digital learning support to families within the city.

Within its first two years, the program connected more than 60,000 households to broadband and was recently expanded to reach an additional 3,000 students.

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