- Kenny Lin, MD, MPH
Excepting a few countries like Denmark that have managed to flatten their infection curve, primary and secondary schools around the world have now been closed for a month or more due to the public health imperative to slow the spread of COVID-19 through physical distancing. Parents and guardians, many of whom have lost jobs or recently transitioned to telework themselves, have struggled to keep track of and connect their children with online educational activities designed to replace in-person learning.
Unfortunately, evidence suggests that distance learning, no matter how carefully designed, does not fully replace in-person instruction. A 2016 report from the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools found that students who attended full-time virtual public charter schools had consistently lower engagement, academic gains, and performance than those in traditional public schools, regardless of demographics. Worse, a considerable proportion of U.S. students have not participated in online learning due to not having personal computers or home Internet access.
Extrapolating from studies of summer learning loss, the educational nonprofit Northwest Evaluation Association recently projected that relative to a typical academic year, students returning to school this fall may only retain 70 percent of reading gains and 50 percent or less of math gains. To make up for these losses, some school districts are planning to extend school into the summer, shrink their curricula, or repeat some of last year's lessions next year. Another controversial idea for high-poverty schools is having all students repeat their current grade, given the potential for further interruptions due to a second or third wave of COVID-19.
Prior to COVID-19, chronic absenteeism (defined as missing at least 10 percent of the academic year, or about 18 days) already affected about 14% of American students from kindergarten through 12th grade. According to an AFP article on school absenteeism, it not only has negative effects on academic performance and graduation rates, but also worsens future social functioning, health status, and life expectancy. Reasons for absenteeism vary from chronic or serious illness (including mental illness) to academic challenges, parenting problems, bullying and victimization, and other social stressors such as food insecurity and homelessness. Family physicians can help by performing an assessment of students with frequent absences and referring students and families to one or more appropriate interventions.