CHILD USA has recently adopted a new initiative, ending Educational Neglect. Educational Neglect is defined as “the failure of a parent or caregiver to enroll a child of mandatory school age in school or to provide appropriate homeschooling or needed special education training.” Of course, parents aren’t alone in contributing to educational neglect. COVID-19 has exposed the reality that our country and its institutions have been neglecting education of children for years.
The Essential Role That Schools Play
Over the past 50 years both federal and state governments have sacrificed their education budgets to other “higher” priorities. Thanks to COVID-19, we see the impact of these cuts. Here are just SOME of the non-academic but necessary roles schools play in the lives of millions of children:
- Help to Prevent Childhood Hunger: For those families on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, schools provide students with breakfast, lunch, and snacks throughout the day. For some children, these are the only meals of the day they can count on.
- Provide Mental Health Services: For many students, school counselors are the only access to mental health services they have. Even though there are nowhere near enough counselors per student, they contribute to safe and healthy schools.
- Physical Check-ups and Vaccinations: School nurses monitor students’ physical health and ensure that all enrolled students are receiving proper vaccinations at the appropriate ages. With COVID, vaccination rates are down 26% from last year.
- Prevent Childhood Homelessness: Schools help to identify homeless children in order to connect them to services they and their families need. Even before COVID-19, schools missed identifying about 1 million homeless children; now with COVID-19 that number is up to 1.4 million since children have started distance learning. 
- Ensure Mental and Social Well-Being of Children: Schools are the places that teach children much more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. Schools are where children learn and develop character traits and social skills and discover who they are as individuals. These aspects of the school day are critical for the overall well-being of the child’s development. 
- Identify and Prevent Abuse and Neglect of Children: Teachers and all school personnel are mandated reporters, which means that by law they are required to report to the authorities if they see signs of abuse or neglect of a child. With students not in schools in person, reports of abuse and neglect in some places have gone down as much as 51%, but the abuse itself has not. 
- Provide Accommodations and Assistance to Disabled Children: Schools are legally required to provide services and an education to students with disabilities under the IDEA law at no cost to families. Without these services, children with these disabilities are suffering greatly. 
As you can see from this non-exhaustive list of services schools provide, they are essential in the lives of children, especially children from underserved communities. Before education (the purpose most people believe school is for) can happen, a student’s other needs must be met, or they will not learn.
Learning During COVID
A recent study out of the NWEA examined student learning during COVID to understand if students were learning during the pandemic, and the results were actually promising, at first. The results showed that on average, reading levels were similar to the previous year but that math showed slightly lower growth than previous years. When I saw these results, I was shocked. As a former teacher myself, I just instinctively knew that couldn’t be the case. I pictured myself attempting to teach students to analyze historical documents written in the time of the Reformation over Zoom to a group of students, for whom many of which English was not their first language, and I decided to look deeper into this study. What they acknowledge later in the study is that the population of students they assessed was not all encompassing and that there is a group of students that were not tested (they do not share how many students this was, the make-up of those students, or the reasons they were not tested).
Just from my anecdotal experience teaching for 10 years in schools across the socio-economic spectrum, I can easily identify why there was a group of students who did not show up, and it is because they are the students who depend on the services described above and are no longer getting them. They are students whose parents have lost their jobs and are now homeless. They are students who were already getting free and reduced lunch due to their economic circumstances, and now without that assistance the kids in high school have to get jobs to support their families to put food on the table. They are students who are suffering from mental health disorders and their parents are essential workers and can’t be home with them so they choose to not log on for school because they literally can’t handle it. They are the elementary school students or the oldest sibling of a group whose parents who have to leave them home alone to keep a roof over their head and so the young kids don’t know how to log on for school or the kid with 3 or 4 younger siblings is taking care of them instead of doing their own schoolwork. They are the kids that are being abused and are hiding from their abusers during the day to avoid getting hurt. They are the kids who have a home with four kids but only one device for school or access to the internet that is not fast enough, or no internet at home at all. They are kids who have a learning disability and no longer have specialists helping them. They are kids who are disabled and have completely lost the services provided by the schools to help them learn.
The services that schools provide keep families afloat. For public school students, it’s free childCARE (care being the keyword, not just education) while parents work two jobs to keep a roof over their kids’ heads. Those students in this study who have maintained their academic levels are the ones whose parents are able to work from home and monitor their attendance and progress at school every day. They are the kids of parents who only work one job and so have time to read books with their kids every day to help keep up their reading skills. They are the kids who don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from and go to bed at night without worrying if they will eat tomorrow. They are kids from families with enough devices for each child to do distance learning at the same time.
The problem with studies like this is it makes people comfortable with the idea that some kids are learning during the pandemic, but the reality is, the majority just aren’t and that’s a problem that preceded the pandemic and will follow it. In Washington, DC an entire class of 2nd graders made no gains in reading, and in fact some regressed, once schools closed in March of 2020. In HISD, the largest school district in Texas located in Houston, the failure rate in the first marking period QUADRUPLED from previous years from an 11% failure rate to a 42% rate. All across the United States there are also children who simply cannot tune in for an education because they don’t have access. In the United States, 59% of lower income parents with children learning remotely said their children would likely face digital obstacles. And while there has been some action by our governments to address this issue, it is somewhat too little too late. Why did it take a pandemic to get these institutions to consider the lack of connectivity for children in such a digital age?
So, the constant discussion of whether or not children are learning feels very pointless to me at times because how CAN they be learning during a time like this? Take away just the challenge of learning over zoom (which even college kids are struggling with as well as companies full of adults), the emotional and mental toll of the pandemic and uncertainty it provides, is impeding children’s focus and attention. When children live in such uncertain times, it causes chronic stress, and when in that mode, a child’s brain literally cannot retain new information. 
The bottom line is that we have an education crisis because we have neglected kids for too long. If we as a society want to ensure that students are keeping up with their academic knowledge, we have to first take care of their essential needs. The solution to this is to put much more money into education and the actual services that students need. A report done by the ACLU revealed the following:
- 1.7 million students are in schools with police but no counselors
- 3 million students are in schools with police but no nurses
- 6 million students are in schools with police but no school psychologists
- 10 million students are in schools with police but no social workers
- 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker 
What these stats should tell you is that the education of these students was being neglected before the pandemic even started because the rest of their needs were being neglected. Now, almost every student is without specialists they had daily access to, so of course they aren’t learning. Especially now during the pandemic, but even before then, our country as a whole has been contributing to the educational neglect of these students by not ensuring they are in a place where the learning can even begin.
So what is the solution? The solution is to FUND SCHOOLS. If schools were properly funded, they would have the resources to address more individual student needs during this pandemic to ensure that students can log on and learn. Every child would have a device and online access. If schools were properly funded, each student could have their stomachs full and their minds at ease so they could tune in and remember what their teachers tell them. If schools were properly funded, all schools would have enough resources for all of their students, and teachers wouldn’t have to take on the jobs of counselors or nurses or buy snacks out of their own paychecks to give to their kids they know won’t get dinner that night. If schools were funded, counselors and school social workers wouldn’t have to pick and choose which students need their services the most, they could help all students who are in need. If schools were funded, this pandemic would probably have turned out much differently for our nation’s children.