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Pandemic learning loss: Students struggle beyond academics

CHICAGO (NewsNation) — It’s been three years since COVID-19 closed classrooms, and the impact the pandemic had on student learning is becoming more apparent as teachers say students across the country are struggling socially, emotionally and academically.

The Illinois Report Card revealed that 53 schools in the state had failing math scores last school year, and new numbers from the California Department of Education showed only 33% of students met or exceeded math standards in 2022.

However, the pandemic learning loss has been revealed to be bigger than just bad grades: Students are struggling socially and emotionally in the classroom from a lack of social interaction.

Preschool teacher Tell Williams said it’s especially tough with young students, who would normally do a lot of their lifelong learning in the first five years of their lives.

Williams explained that most of the students in preschool now have not experienced socializing with other kids their age, especially if their parents were very diligent about following COVID-19 guidelines. Even when these students first started in school, guidelines limited their interactions with each other.

Kids were not allowed to share items like toys or markers, classroom sizes were smaller and they were still forced to wear masks. Williams said they were limited in doing the things that kids do socially and emotionally to get them prepared to learn academically.

“If they weren’t able to socially and emotionally be where they’re supposed to be at these milestones of development, they’re going to be behind academically by the time they get to learn, engage in fourth or fifth grade, and, you know, sixth and seventh grade,” he explained.

Lauren Woolley, a fifth-grade school teacher, said that even before the pandemic, they were seeing a lot of reading and math gaps. But now, a lack of social and emotional development over the past three years has caused a lot of mental health issues that have been crippling students in classrooms.

“It was all survival mode, and now we’re expecting them to go back to business as usual, and it’s just not going to happen,” Woolley said.

She explained that students were forced to go into survival mode at the beginning of the pandemic, and for a lot of them it wasn’t just a break from academics. The pandemic affected a lot of low-income students: it created food insecurity issues and took other necessary resources away for many students.

Even at the middle school level, where students are expected to have developed basic social and emotional skills, teachers are seeing children struggle.

Gabe Dannenbring, a seventh-grade teacher, said he’s seeing a lot of students at an elementary reading level and elementary level math scores. He said the social skills for kids just aren’t there.

“For a lot of kids, they went a long time out of the classroom,” Dannenbring said. “They weren’t able to play when they were in elementary school, and now we’re seeing the effects of it, and I see it every day in the classroom.”

Dannenbring said it’s still possible to get students back on track, it’s just going to take a lot of intervention and a lot of working with kids to try to figure out where the learning loss was.

“It’s gonna be a lot of tutoring. It’s gonna take some time, but I think we can get there. It’s just going to take a lot of work.”

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