As the Summer Fades into Fall and the Kids Return to School, All Is Not Well

Published September 6, 2023
back to school

We have all gone through it as children. The joys of summer fade, the weather cools, the days get shorter, and the school doors swing open. For most kids – and I was certainly one of them – it is not a time of joy.

But these days, it can be downright depressing. The hysterical pandemic-related school shutdowns, notably, have done far-reaching and long-lasting damage. Released in July, “Education’s long COVID:2022–23 achievement data” reveals stalled progress toward pandemic recovery. As former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Bruno Mano explains, “The assessment provider NWEA reports that students in grades three to eight lost ground in reading and math during the 2022-23 school year. On average, they need four more months in school to catch up to pre-pandemic levels ….”

This assessment aligns with the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results. The scores on the reading and math tests administered in October-December 2022 showed the steepest declines ever recorded since the tests were first administered.

The bad news doesn’t end with academics; student mental health is also deteriorating. A CDC analysis declares that from April 2020 to October 2020 – when the pandemic first peaked, and the shutdowns were in full swing – the proportion of mental health-related visits to emergency departments rose by 24% over pre-pandemic levels for children aged 5 to 11 and by 31% for children aged 12–17. “By April 2022, 70% of public schools reported an increase in the percentage of children seeking school mental-health services compared to pre-pandemic levels.”

One of the attempted fixes for the various student problems was the American Rescue Plan, which saw the feds throw $190 billion at the problem. But a 10-month examination by The 74 shows that many districts haven’t used the funds with the urgency intended. Some have barely tapped monies that advocates say are “critical for academic recovery, while others have pumped millions of dollars into major classroom additions, upgrading athletic fields, and other expenditures unrelated to the pandemic.”

While, as noted above, the reading and math NAEP tests administered in October-December 2022 showed the steepest declines ever, things weren’t exactly terrific before the shutdowns. As The 74’s Kevin Mahnken wrote in June, the 2022 NAEP scores “widen the aperture on the nation’s profound academic slump.” In doing so, the latest test serves “as a complement to the 2020 iteration of the same test, which showed that the math and English skills of 13-year-olds had noticeably eroded even before the emergence of COVID-19.”

Americans have been taking note of the bad news. A recent poll found that just 35% of Republican voters and 46% of Democratic voters are satisfied with the performance of their local public school. So it is hardly surprising that almost half of all parents “have decided on or are currently considering” a different school for one or more of their children, per a National School Choice Week poll.

Parents are indeed acting. In addition to becoming more involved in their local school board elections, they are taking advantage of the private option in states that allow it.

-Indiana is reporting a 20% increase in its voucher program.

-Florida made its K-12 scholarships universal this year by removing income limits, and Step Up for Students, the administering organization, recently said it had awarded 268,221 income-based scholarships, up from 183,925 at the same time a year ago.

-West Virginia’s universal ESA program, entering its second year, has received 6,323 applications for the coming school term, up from roughly 3,600 last year.

-Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office reports that the state’s new ESA program received 29,025 applications during a month-long window.

Savvy politicians should act on America’s rising passion for school choice. A YouGov national poll in February disclosed that of 634 parents interviewed, 59.7% support Education Savings Accounts, with 14.6% opposed and 25.7% undecided. Most interestingly, even more Democrats than Republicans are in favor – 67.5% to 61.3%. Additionally, support for ESAs is strong among Black parents, with 70.3% in favor of the program. By comparison, 59.1% of White parents and 50.8% of Hispanic parents support ESAs.