Mar 8, 2022 - Politics & Policy

COVID contributes to alarming decline in child literacy

Photo of a teacher standing at the front of a classroom and pointing to their left as students sit at their desks in rows

A second-grade class at Weaverville Elementary School on Aug. 17, 2020, the first day of returning to in-person instruction, in Weaverville, Calif. Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Children are falling severely behind in reading as the world enters its third year of the coronavirus pandemic, according to multiple studies.

The big picture: Though U.S. literacy rates were already dipping prior to COVID-19, studies show that roughly a third of kindergarten through second-grade students are missing reading benchmarks compared to about 21% in 2019.

Why it matters: The learning loss disproportionately impacts children who are Black, Hispanic, disabled, low-income or not fluent in English.

Details: As schools closed and districts struggled to adapt to remote teaching, students were forced to learn the basics of reading outside the classroom with varying access to online instruction.

  • One study found that K-2 students are scoring below the benchmark at the highest rate ever observed in a Virginia learning assessment's 20-year history.
  • "In these three early grades, persistent learning losses have widened the national gaps in early reading skills between Black and Hispanic students and their white counterparts," an0ther study noted.

Perhaps the most critical factor at play is the shortage of teachers that has persisted even as students returned to classrooms.

  • Nearly half of public schools report full- or part-time teaching vacancies, according to data released last week by the National Center for Education Statistics. Special education and elementary school positions have seen the most vacancies.
  • Below benchmark rates are still largely moving in the wrong direction and a higher proportion of students than ever before are at medium to high risk for reading difficulties.

What they're saying: "The scope of the issue is large in scale and deserves districtwide, statewide, and national attention," one research brief noted.

  • "Effective instruction and intervention are critical because reading difficulties typically persist for students who do not develop adequate reading skills within the first three years of schooling," the authors of the Virginia study wrote.
  • "In turn, reading deficits often compound to negatively affect other areas of academic learning, engagement, and success. Thus, without adequate, sustained, and targeted supports, it is likely that many of these students will not only continue to struggle with reading, but in other domains as well."
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