How COVID School Closures Have Impacted Students

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On the heels of temporary school closures and the shift to digital learning environments during the COVID-19 pandemic, 95 percent of the world’s student population experienced learning disruption and a disconnection from the classroom that are still affecting them today. While these changes were necessary for the safety of students, teachers and those working within schools, this resulted in a severe gap between where students should be in regards to their respective grade level and their current performance. The impact of school closures was harder on colored students than we immediately realized.

For students of color and those in under-resourced schools, many already faced inequity within their educational experience. “A lot of people call it the achievement gap,” said Learn4Life executive director Ken Zeff in GPB. “It’s really an opportunity gap. Achievement gap makes it sound like it’s the student; it’s not the student that is not achieving. It’s the student who’s denied the opportunity.” 

This long-term absence from the classroom and challenges to access to digital resources caused worsened learning outcomes that compounded intergenerational inequalities. This induced mental and physical health issues, even crisis, for some students. The learning disruption and opportunity gap seen in students’ academics has only been exacerbated by additional school closures and mergers happening as a result of a decline in enrollment. 

Impact of School Closures on Students in Metro Atlanta

Atlanta has the highest income inequality among large U.S. cities, with a median household income for white students of $167k, and just $23k for Black students, and that disparity impacts every aspect of the Atlanta Public School (APS) system. During the pandemic closures, students needed access to wifi, tablets, laptops, or other digital learning devices to keep up, and for many lower income families across the city that created a large barrier to education.

Almost 10 percent of Georgia’s students are without internet or a computer device at home, The Atlanta Voice shared. While many schools sought to provide the necessary tools for children, students and teachers within under-resourced APS schools had to contend with broken and outdated technology, as well as shortage of materials at times. 

These hurdles for students of color or students from low-income families lead to a significant drop in their academic achievement. A 2020 study from redefinED atlanta and Learn4Life projected that only three out of 10 historically underserved students will now be on track to grade-level proficiency within Metro Atlanta. 

The predicted impact on childrens’ academic experience was unfortunately proven true. Using recent Georgia Milestone results, redefinED atlanta uncovered that, between 2019 and 2022, APS saw a six percent decline in reading and a 12 percent decline in math for 3-8th graders. For students who entered the pandemic behind grade level, likely due to inequity in education, there was an even greater learning loss.

The Direct Impact on Education for Black and Brown Students

School closures left students months behind the benchmark for where they should be in their learning. During this loss of educational progress, primary school children, especially children of color, were most affected, including struggling to acquire basic knowledge and study methods needed to grow and excel academically. Students of color were also at an increased risk of dropping out of school, resulting in lost opportunities and earning less money over their lifetimes than they would have otherwise, UConn Today cites. 

While students at majority-white schools are closing the gap and are almost caught up, students from majority-black or under-resourced schools are falling farther behind. According to this 2019 report by GeorgiaCAN, it would take 127 years for Black 4th graders in APS to catch up to White 4th graders at current rates. 

The economic impact of the pandemic and school closures have had broader implications for Black and Brown families. “Students of color and their families are more likely to have lost paychecks due to COVID-19, and are also more likely to have rethought going to college,” Best Colleges states. 

Effect of School Closures and Mergers on Students’ Learning

In recent years, a decline in birth rate has led to a decline in student enrollment, prompting school systems like APS to permanently close and then merge schools within the district. An 11Alive article stated that APS officials aimed to free up resources to better serve students, but some argue that the communities affected directly by this weren’t considered or consulted. 

While some of these mergers were proposed prior to the pandemic, school performance following the temporary COVID-related closures expedited these plans for soon-to-be merged schools or delayed newly merged schools’ aspirations to bolster performance and bring equity to their students’ educational experience. New mergers came just as students returned to in-school instruction, meaning students who were still grappling with COVID-related changes now had to deal with changing schools, classes, routines and more.

Additionally, leaders of newly merged schools had their plans derailed by the temporary closures during the pandemic. A prime example of this is the Harper-Archer merger in August 2019, in which two academically challenged schools were reformed as one school at a renovated Harper-Archer School site. According to The AJC, “stability is critical in turnaround schools, and the Coronavirus crisis has upended schoolhouses and homes. The need to close buildings and switch to distance learning will disproportionately harm low-income students who are already behind, experts predict.”

How We Can Help Students Catch Up

As children, teachers, and administrators try their best to close learning gaps, there are ways that parents and guardians can help. 

  • Partner with your child’s educators to see how your child is doing academically and what they recommend your child needs to grow. 
  • Use any supplemental resources, like in-school tutoring programs, that may help your child get the individualized attention they need to catch up and excel.
  • Lastly, use your voice at school, district and community meetings. Making a public comment at APS Board of Education meetings is one way to share what your children need to succeed directly with APS leadership. When advocating for progress or stopping unwanted change, grassroots and community efforts can make all the difference. 

Are you interested in using your voice and making a difference for your children, but don’t know where to start? redefinED atlanta can help.