Pandemic School Closures Leave Students Unprepared for College

Updated March 4, 2022

Edited by Brenna Swanston
Pandemic School Closures Leave Students Unprepared for College
COVID-19 Opinion & Analysis
Photo by Boston Globe / Contributor / Boston Globe / Getty Images

  • Pandemic school closures have set back academic achievement.
  • Children's social and behavioral skills are suffering, while their mental health issues are on the rise.
  • Two years of learning loss may negatively affect college preparedness.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen waves of school closures, leaving many learners behind in their studies. According to recent research, school shutdowns can harm students' health, their future earning potential, and even their life expectancy.

Despite widespread concern over omicron, studies show that schools are not drivers of COVID-19. For many students, the risks of missing school may outweigh the risks of contracting the coronavirus.

Researchers from the UK have found that school closures are associated with the following effects among children:

  • Learning loss
  • Reduced social interaction
  • Isolation
  • Reduced physical activity
  • Potential for increased abuse
  • Exploitation
  • Neglect

Students who have spent much of the pandemic learning online have fallen behind in core subjects and social skills. Learners' college preparedness and, as a result, their future income and life expectancy are on the line.

School Shutdowns Hold Back Learning

For nearly two years, school closures due to COVID-19 have impacted over 616 million children around the globe. UNICEF chief of education Robert Jenkins said the resulting education loss is "nearly insurmountable."

Disrupted education has taken a toll on learning outcomes. In the U.S., K-12 students posted relatively low gains in the 2020-2021 school year.

According to research from McKinsey & Company, “While all students are suffering, those who came into the pandemic with the fewest academic opportunities are on track to exit with the greatest learning loss.”

The firm's analysis found that students of color were 3-5 months behind in math and reading, while white students were 1-3 months behind. The report warned that these gaps could widen.

Hear from College Students About Their Pandemic Experiences

According to a November 2021 report from Curriculum Associates, unfinished learning is greatest among low-income, Black, and Latino learners.

The discrepancy in learning outcomes correlates with remote instruction. Schools with less in-person instruction saw the sharpest declines in standardized test results, according to a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The paper found that passing rates in math declined over 14% on average. Researchers estimated that this decline was closer to 4% in districts that remained fully in person.

It's not just grades that have fallen during school closures. Students' mental health and social skills are suffering, too.

Shutdowns Exacerbate Youth Mental Health Crisis

Already a growing concern pre-pandemic, children's mental health issues have spiked over the last two years.

A systematic review found that school closures and lockdowns led to increased distress, anxiety, and screen time among children and adolescents. Physical activity in these groups decreased as well. Girls are struggling the most.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts by childred aged 12-17 increased by 50% in girls and almost 4% in boys from 2019-2020. One analysis of primary care visits from a large pediatric network found a 34% increase in suicidal thoughts among female adolescents.

As mental health issues soar among children and adolescents, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association have declared a state of emergency in children’s mental health.

School shutdowns are a double-edged sword when it comes to adolescent mental health. Remote learning is associated with feelings of loneliness, sedentary lifestyles, and more time spent online. And without in-person, daily interactions, teachers and counselors are less able to detect when kids are showing signs of mental illness.

Students Regress in Behavior and Social Skills

According to The Hechinger Report, veteran teachers at all grade levels are seeing the worst student behavior of their careers. After missing out on much of the last two school years, kids have lost ground in social and behavioral skills.

Social workers report more verbal and physical fights, and more calls from parents worried about their child's temper. According to a Harvard survey, over half of parents (61%) reported their child's social-emotional development was impaired by the pandemic.

An uptick in disruptive behavior may lead to an increase in exclusionary discipline, such as detention and suspension.

Exclusionary discipline removes students from their classrooms as a consequence of their behavior. In the end, this deprives students of in-person learning. Suspension and similar forms of punishment disproportionately impact Black students, Native American students, and students with disabilities.

Rates of exclusionary discipline dropped to near zero during the 2020-2021 school year, with most schools closed and classes held online. Even before the pandemic, education policy had begun to shift away from suspending students. Now, as suspension rates increase again, vulnerable student groups could once again bear the brunt.

Summer School Can't Make Up For Lost Time

Once lost, learning is not easy to regain. Remedial programs at both the K-12 and college levels have low levels of success and tend to discourage students. At their worst, these programs can hold back learners even further. Now, many students are logging low grades, which may lead to remedial courses.

The Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package, signed into law last March, sets aside $30 billion for after-school and summer learning programs. Educators have struggled to design summer school programs to help students catch up. However, research shows that summer school is rarely successful in raising reading or math achievement.

With school closures stacked against them, a generation of young students could face serious hurdles to college readiness. Some colleges already anticipate a dip in academic achievement during 2020 and 2021, with admission officers saying they will make exceptions for pandemic-era transcripts heavy on pass/fail grades and light on extra-curriculars.