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'Generational Catastrophe' Coming From COVID-19's Disruption of Education

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One billion students.

That's the number of students worldwide whose learning has been disrupted, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, said in a video message released today. It's the largest disruption in schooling in history, he said, affecting children in more than 160 countries. 

Let's pause to think about that number for a moment: A billion. It's more than an eighth of the total population of the globe. In monetary terms, a sum so vast it's hard to spend it in a lifetime. A one with nine trailing zeros: 1,000,000,000. A thousand millions.

This grim milestone is not just symbolically important to mark. It indicates that the coronavirus pandemic stands to wreak havoc on an entire, worldwide generation of young people.

Research on learning in both the United States and in other nations shows that the effects of natural disasters on school closures—probably the closest parallel to the COVID-19 pandemic—tend to be both severe and long-lasting for students. In one study looking at the effects of a devastating earthquake in Pakistan, for example, students closest to the epicenter who lost on average 14 weeks of school remained more than a year behind their peers four years later.

But you need not look that far for examples. Research here on the impact of the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita found that New Orleans students displaced due to the storms suffered academically for years.

There is a glimmer of hope in this research: Good instruction can reverse the damage. Students displaced in New Orleans recovered after several years attending better-performing schools. 

Like our fellow countries and nations, what we now have is a choice about how we're going to respond.

Will we look back in 20 years and be able to trace a huge decline in well-being for this population—say, lower earnings, worse health outcomes, higher rates of unemployment? Or will we have a story about how we faced an enormous physical and moral challenge, and overcame it? 

At the federal level, the United States' response to addressing the disruption can so far be described only as feckless. Rapidly changing guidance and directives from federal and state officials have led to what my colleague Andrew Ujifusa called a "discordant chorus" of conflicting information.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Great Britian has put together a 1 billion pound funding scheme for extra student services, and has earmarked a third of that funding for high-dosage tutoring, one of the few interventions with sound research evidence to back it up. Other countries, like the Netherlands, have also approved funding packages to send flexible additional money to schools to hire tutors, teachers, and coaches. 

Later this month, Education Week will publish several stories on using interventions to respond to learning loss—the lastest in its ongoing series, How We Go Back to School, which is aimed at giving superintendents, school board members, and school leaders ideas on how to make the 2020-21 school year work. Our pieces will all pull from the relevant research and the insights of districts who have successfully intervened to boost student learning.

But to be done well, many of these interventions cost some amount of money at a time when districts' budgets are severely squeezed. 

Are our policymakers listening?

The Associated Press contributed.

Photo: Children run past a COVID-19 advert promoting the use of face mask, washing of hands, use of sanitiser and social distance in the township of Soweto outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, in July. —Themba Hadebe/AP)

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