“To America’s children, families, and educators, the last two school years have not gone the way you planned. You’ve missed chances to connect, share, and help each other. Outside of the classroom, you’ve struggled with loneliness, fear, anxiety, and maybe much more. You’ve lost chances to learn new skills, and you may even have worried about having enough to eat or having a safe place to live. You’ve made the very best of a difficult situation, but I’m fighting to make sure that this year, you get the safe and fulfilling school year you deserve …”

So begins an open letter Children’s Defense Fund supporters are sharing with students, parents, and educators across our country at the start of another extraordinary school year. Back to school season always brings some uncertainty about the unknown, but for the second year in a row the COVID-19 pandemic has created significant new worries and anxieties as schools continue to navigate uncharted ground.

There are ongoing concerns about how we can help children recover from the academic disruptions so many of them have faced, and children who were most at risk before the pandemic still have the most at stake. The recent New York Times editorial “The School Kids Are Not Alright” put it this way: “Virtually every school in the nation closed in March 2020, replacing face-to-face schooling with thrown-together online education or programs that used a disruptive scheduling process to combine the two. Only a small portion of the student body returned to fully opened schools the following fall. The resulting learning setbacks range from grave for all groups of students to catastrophic for poor children ... The pandemic amplified disadvantages rooted in racial and socioeconomic inequality, transforming an educational gap into a gulf.”

The editorial cites an analysis by the nonprofit N.W.E.A. that found Latino third graders scored 17 percentile points lower in math in the spring of 2021 than in the spring of 2019, Black students 15 percentile points lower, and Native American students 14 percentile points lower, and studies showing that schools with higher numbers of Black, Latino and poor students were more likely to remain closed, providing their students fewer opportunities for in-person learning.

It also cites a McKinsey report that found the pandemic “has widened existing opportunity and achievement gaps and made high schoolers more likely to drop out. As the authors say: ‘The fallout from the pandemic threatens to depress this generation’s prospects and constrict their opportunities far into adulthood. The ripple effects may undermine their chances of attending college and ultimately finding a fulfilling job that enables them to support a family.’ Unless steps are taken to fill the pandemic learning gap, the authors say, these people will earn less over their lifetimes. The impact on the U.S. economy could range from $128 billion to $188 billion every year as the cohort enters the work force.”

These setbacks have the potential to become long-lasting limitations, and for many students, academic setbacks have been exacerbated and in some cases overtaken by the deep social and emotional toll the pandemic has taken on children of all ages and socioeconomic levels struggling with anxiety, loneliness, and grief.

Now, just as many are returning to full-time, in-person learning for the first time since the pandemic began, families and educators are facing a dangerous new surge in the pandemic driven by some adults’ determined resistance to measures designed to help keep children and adults in school safely. What greater responsibility could we have to children than to do everything in our power to keep them safe?

Children need to be surrounded by adults who are more willing and determined than ever to do whatever it takes to ensure they get the school year they deserve and desperately need. Schools must have specific strategies for helping students who are behind to catch up. All of us must support measures to help keep our children, teachers, and families safe. And parents and teachers must be ready to listen to children, discern how they are really feeling, and take every step they can to help them feel supported, connected, and secure.

We must be prepared to bridge educational gaps before they become even deeper gulfs and offer all children the protection and support they need right now.

Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.

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