America’s future is figuratively on the line. After a year and a half of remote and hybrid learning, children across the United States have fallen desperately behind, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Co., which estimates that the average American student has lost up to nine months of learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. And students of color fare even worse, it reports.
That may not sound like much, but even a few months of learning loss could have a lifetime of impacts, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international policymaking group that says education interruptions result from COVID-19 will have implications for students and nations alike. It estimates that students will earn nearly 10 percent less income over their lifetimes for every year of learning loss they experience.
Because less knowledge translates to fewer skills and decreased innovation, every year of learning loss will cost the U.S. economy trillions of dollars in gross domestic product annually through the end of the century.
Against this backdrop, school systems are expected to spend billions of dollars on accelerated and auxiliary learning programs to address learning deficits. In a rush to close academic gaps, however, there’s a risk that they might widen social-emotional gaps that also have formed.
“A lot of parents and educators right now think our No. 1 job at school is to catch kids up. But what does that look like? More homework? More instruction? More time in seats listening to lectures? What I think will ‘catch kids up’ is less of all that,” says youth development researcher Rebecca London, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “The pandemic has been traumatic for all of us, including children, so I think our first order of business needs to be healing from that collective trauma.”
Catching students up academically is obviously still a priority. Still, a key place to start the healing process is the playground, according to Elizabeth Cushing, CEO of Playworks, a nonprofit organization that promotes play in schools. “Our brains can’t take on the work of learning if we don’t feel safe,” she says. “Because it makes the school feel like a fun, welcoming, and inclusive place to be, play can be a mighty, efficient and easy lever to pull to help kids feel safer.”