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Pandemic puts kids months behind in reading, math, study says

A new report is shedding light on the academic, social, and mental-health damage caused by school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

A McKinsey & Co. report released Tuesday examined test scores for 1.6 million elementary school students across 40 states in spring 2021 and contrasted the results with scores for students before the pandemic. The results: On average, pandemic-era children are four months behind in reading and five months behind in math.

Students who are minorities or those who come from low-income householders suffered the most. Kids in majority-black schools were six months behind in reading and math, on average, while kids at schools with an average income below $25,000 a year were seven months behind in math and six months in reading.

Moreover, McKinsey found that high-school students were more likely to drop out of school and that high-school seniors — particularly from low-income families — were less likely to go on to attend college.

The learning losses have an economic impact, as well.

“Our analysis suggests that, unless steps are taken to address unfinished learning, today’s students may earn $49,000 to $61,000 less over their lifetime owing to the impact of the pandemic on their schooling,” the authors wrote. “The impact on the U.S. economy could amount to $128 billion to $188 billion every year as this cohort enters the workforce.

“Lower earnings, lower levels of education attainment, less innovation — all of these lead to decreased economic productivity,” the authors added. “By 2040 the majority of this cohort of K-12 students will be in the workforce. We anticipate a potential annual GDP loss of $128 billion to $188 billion from pandemic-related unfinished learning.”

Academic declines weren’t the only bad news. The report showed that 35% of parents are “very” or “extremely” concerned with their child’s mental health and social wellbeing. Parents also reported “increases in behaviors such as social withdrawal, self-isolation, lethargy, and irrational fears” among their teens.

In North Carolina, a majority of public school students failed to pass end-of-course tests in fall 2020, an indication of learning losses due to remote-only instruction. Stories from parents across the state show that it could be years before students recover academically, particularly for students with special needs, and the impacts extend to mental health, as well.

In March, Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican lawmakers reached a deal on reopening public schools for in-person instruction. The compromise plan returned most decision-making autonomy to local school boards.

A month later, lawmakers and Cooper found agreement again on two bills designed to address pandemic-caused learning losses. The first, House Bill 82, requires all public school districts to offer a minimum of six weeks of in-person summer school this year.

The second, Senate Bill 387, makes key updates to the 2013 “Read to Achieve” law, built around ensuring students are reading proficiently by third grade. The bill switches literacy instruction from a “look-and-say” method to the phonetic method.