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By: Dr. Tami Silverman   

Saying this has been a difficult year for educators and students is like a saying the Indianapolis 500 is a race – an immense understatement. Losses and loneliness due to COVID-19, rising levels of childhood poverty and hunger, and constant uncertainty coupled with pressure to quickly adopt and adapt to new technologies and learning modalities. Post-pandemic days grow ever closer, but what does that mean for Indiana students going forward?

Educators, mentors, and family members are concerned about learning loss resulting from the numerous educational disruptions. Early data from national testing organizations showed, on average, a 5 to 10 percentile drop in math scores for children in the critical third through eighth grades. Drops were particularly notable in the scores of Black and Hispanic students and students attending high-poverty schools, another disproportionate impact of the pandemic on our poor and non-white communities.

McKinsey & Co. has released a study that both projected estimated learning losses while also providing suggestions to address the students most impacted. Specifically looking at learning in math, McKinsey estimated that white students lost three months of academic growth while students of color lost three to five months. Suggested activities to address the learning loss, and expanding opportunity gaps, included: scaling high-intensity tutoring; creating small group academies over school breaks; protecting the neediest school districts from spending cuts; adding academics into summer camp activities; and touching base with missing students and their families weekly beyond virtual media, including in-person home visits and/or food or supply deliveries.

House Bill 1008, the student learning recovery grant program, is currently under consideration in the Indiana State Legislature. The legislation would designate funding, define eligible entities, and establish requirements for student learning acceleration plans. If passed, the bill would take effect immediately, allowing Indiana schools to quickly act to help their students.

In addition to learning loss, there is little doubt that the pandemic has elevated levels of anxiety and depression among students that had these illnesses before the outbreak. Research in the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health also reported that new and/or different fears and behavioral health illnesses have emerged for many of our children and youth. As schools and activities resume, we need to acknowledge the lasting impact that stress, uncertainty, loss, and fear can have. Our task is to prioritize our kids’ mental health and their social and emotional wellbeing, finding the additional supports and services they need to feel safe and secure.

Our kids need the connections found not only in school but also in sports, afterschool programs, and the countless other activities that were scaled back or halted due to health concerns. Summer programs can be a fantastic way to transition back into group interactions. Camps, academies, and out-of-school programs offer learning and developmental growth delivered through fun and engaging models. Playworks, a nonprofit that promotes child development through play activities, recently published practical ways to keep kids active – and socially and emotionally health – this summer. A list of suggestions and resources can be found here and Playworks Indiana can be reached at www.playworks.org/indiana/.

Of course, we also must applaud the tremendous efforts made this year by our teachers, counselors, administrators, and everyone working in schools. They have adjusted to new schedules, new technologies, and often complicated new safety requirements. It is not surprising that many educators are feeling stressed and burnt out. Edsurge’s article about supporting educators in 2021, linked here, contains several recommendations and free resources to support teacher efforts, many from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

The need to address youth learning loss, child social and emotional well-being, and educator support is clear. We all benefit when all Indiana students are nourished and prepared to succeed. It will likely be several years before we fully understand the impact the pandemic has had on our kids. Yet there are local and state efforts underway and there are additional actions we can take now to build a pathway to recovery. This year has changed everyone, let’s work together to minimize and offset the negative effects on our students.