COVID disrupted learning. Did it stop it altogether?

Some experts challenge assertions children suffered ruinous ‘lost year’ of instruction
A sign says it all to passing motorists at Murphey Candler Elementary School in Lithonia on March 18, 2020. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic,  public elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools closed in Georgia. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM



A sign says it all to passing motorists at Murphey Candler Elementary School in Lithonia on March 18, 2020. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, public elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools closed in Georgia. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

A year ago today, the Fulton County School System jolted Georgia with its announcement it would close all its schools after a teacher tested positive for the coronavirus. As the virus gained a greater foothold in Georgia, other districts shuttered their classrooms. Twelve months later, some are only now feeling it is safe to bring students back to classrooms.

It’s been a wild journey for public education with the overnight leap into virtual learning, the mobilization of daily meal service to ensure students and their families ate and the arduous challenge to provide internet access and devices to thousands of students without either.

Where has that journey left students?

Many education advocates contend American students lost a year of learning and fell behind peers elsewhere in the world. The debilitating consequences of that learning loss, advocates warn, will be diminished opportunities and earnings.

Developmental-behavioral pediatrician David J. Schonfeld doesn’t see it that way. As director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, he has offered guidance on helping children after many national crises and tragedies, including 9/11 and the Newtown school shooting massacre.

He disputes the contention U.S. children have lost irretrievable ground and their competitive edge as a result of the pandemic. “Who is going to be better off?” he asked. Unless the competition is from Mars, there is no place in the world that hasn’t suffered pandemic setbacks, said Schonfeld, who served as a commissioner for both the National Commission on Children and Disasters and the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission in Connecticut.

It’s also wrong, he said, to assume students haven’t been learning. When a parent asked him what her son could accomplish at home, Schonfeld recommended honing basic life skills, including cooking. “If they missed certain academic content, that isn’t necessarily a tragedy if they are learning life skills,” said Schonfeld, the keynote speaker at a Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education forum Thursday. Schonfeld also spoke to the AJC after his speech.

Academic gaps can be closed. As a department head, Schonfeld said it was far easier to help a new doctor pick up missing medical knowledge than the skills to cope with stress and adversity. “Those are the life skills that are going to make them better to employ in the future. I would rather employ someone who had a gap in knowledge than a gap in social skills,” he said. “I can help them with academic gaps, but I can’t do that for certain life skills or learning skills.”

During a media panel last week, Robin Gurwitch, a Duke University professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said, “I do think this has served as a year of disrupted education. I don’t want to say this is a lost year of education.”

She said it’s important to apply a long lens. “What happened in this past year doesn’t define where kids or teens are going to be in the long term. We still have that potential,” said Gurwitch, whose clinical work and research focuses on improving the outcomes and increasing resilience in children who have experienced trauma or crisis events, including terrorism, natural disasters and stressors related to military deployment.

“But has this disrupted education? Absolutely,” she said. “And it has brought up the disparities even more — for families that did not have access to reliable internet or families with children in special education services, which were incredibly derailed during this last year. We certainly know that those students are at a higher risk for not meeting academic milestones.”

Gurwitch said her concerns about the impact of COVID on kids go beyond academics. “We do know it’s also the social-emotional piece that we have in school; it is the nutrition that students get in school. So, there are so many more layers to education than simply your ABCs,” she said.

“For some children, they actually have been able to do fairly well. For other children, virtual learning has been very much an added stressor. I don’t want to say gosh this is a lost year and we should write it off because I think there are things we can learn from this. But it has certainly put in more challenges.”

Also part of the Duke media briefing was clinical psychologist Jennifer Plumb Vilardaga, an assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the addiction division at the Duke University School of Medicine, who said the pandemic reaffirmed the resilience of the human spirit.

“While there’s a lot stacked against us with folks exposed to chronic stressors, multiple traumas … there is resilience. One of the things I’ve seen emerging from the pandemic, we’re all looking at what actually matters to us,” she said. “We’re letting go of some of the things maybe we weren’t attending to when we were busy.”