Aug 1, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Schools look to get back on track after 2 terrible years

Illustration of a tiny student looking at a huge stack of books.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Schools are intensely focused this year on trying to regroup after two-plus years of interrupted learning — including helping students catch up, both socially and academically.

Why it matters: Students of all ages suffered steep declines in academic achievement during the pandemic. And with classes resuming soon, schools are facing a daunting challenge as they try to make up for that lost time.

The big picture: At the current rate, it may take years for some students to recover from pandemic-era learning loss, according to a NWEA report earlier this month.

  • Schools are rolling out tutoring programs and enhanced after school offerings, and some are considering lengthening the school year in an effort to remedy lost time.
  • Schools are also boosting emotional and social support offerings after disrupted educational experiences, including offering food drives for students and families and free health screenings.
  • "[Schools are] going to help support ... families and students but also engage the students in a way that the school can be become more of a center of their life than it's been since the disruptions," Dennis Roche, the president of school tracking site Burbio, told Axios.

Yes, but: While the offerings aimed at academic recovery are a start, they may not match the full extent of the problem.

  • "If you're going to try to to patch a hole, it's all about making sure that the size of the patches that you're using are big enough to cover the hole," said Thomas Kane, a Harvard economist who has done extensive research on the pandemic achievement loss.
  • School districts across the country are still facing widespread teaching shortages, which were exacerbated during the pandemic. Some are also bracing for continued staffing shortages among bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other academic support positions.
  • Schools are boosting pay for teachers and bolstering teacher recruiting programs, among other tactics, to mitigate staffing challenges, but even if those efforts succeed, getting back up to speed will take time.

Between the lines: Over the past two years, simply trying to keep everyone safe from COVID upended just about every aspect of the school day.

  • But this year, remote learning is largely out. Now that teachers, staff and even the youngest students can get vaccinated, many districts are also ditching their mask mandates, social distancing setups and testing requirements.
  • "COVID mitigation should not be the defining characteristic of this year," Roche said.

The other side: While schools are looking beyond the pandemic, some worry that they are ignoring rising COVID-19 case numbers and moving on too quickly.

  • "I believe we are going to be in the same place we were last year," John Coneglio, president of the 4,000-member Columbus Education Association, said.
  • "We're still going to have teacher vacancies, shortages of substitutes, shortages of bus drivers. I don't see much changing," he said, adding that he's worried that teachers will be criticized for taking sick days.

What to watch: The federal government has authorized more than $190 billion to help schools reopen and respond to the pandemic.

The bottom line: "Hopefully by spring of '23, teachers and administrators will have their mojo back and we can start to plan for much more ambitious efforts, because we just can't let these losses become permanent," Kane said.

Go deeper... Schools desperate for substitute teachers

Go deeper