The Biggest Disruption in the History of American Education

For many students, physical school wasn’t replaced with Zoom. Rather, school closures meant no school—literally none at all.

Illustration of an apple surrounded by barbed wire
John J. Custer

On March 4, 2020, a week before the World Health Organization formally declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, Northshore School District, in Washington State, closed its doors, becoming the first in the country to announce a districtwide shift to online learning. Within three weeks, every public-school building in the United States had been closed and 50 million students had been sent home. Half of these students would not reenter their schools for more than a year. No other high-income country in the world relied to such a great extent on remote instruction. The coronavirus caused by far the biggest disruption in the history of American education. Neither the Great Depression nor even the two World Wars imposed anything close to as drastic a change in how America’s schoolchildren spent their days.

Adulthood is stasis: Any year in one’s 50s tends to be much like the next. But childhood is growth, and when schools closed, they shut children out of the place where much of this growth happens. Some of the lost growth was academic and social, as school closures cut children off from teachers and friends. These losses were compounded by children’s exclusion from an array of other goods and services. In the United States, almost all public services for school-age children in some way run through schools. Schools provide nutrition; dental care; nursing services; mental-health care; physical, occupational, and speech therapy; child care for teen parents; referrals to social workers and child-welfare agencies; and laundry facilities and clothing for homeless students. Even in an era of mass shootings and COVID outbreaks, schools are the safest place for children. Moreover, schools don’t just serve the children who attend them. They also provide child care for parents and create social, cultural, and political hubs for communities.

Conventional accounts of the effect of school closures focus on the shift from in-person to online teaching and the academic losses that resulted. This familiar story isn’t false, but it’s only a part of the truth, and it understates both the disruption and the inequities that COVID wrought on students’ lives. When schools closed, all the goods that they provide became suddenly scarcer, and children and families who relied most on public provision of these goods suffered a cascade of harms that touched virtually every aspect of their lives. The disruption the coronavirus has caused to schoolchildren will ripple through the future of the COVID generation. Unfinished learning may turn out to be the easiest of these losses to cure.

A complete reckoning begins by explaining precisely how school closures affected children’s daily lives. For many students, physical school wasn’t replaced with Zoom school. Rather, physical school closures meant no school—literally none at all, for days and even weeks on end.

National surveys of teachers by the EdWeek Research Center, for example, reported that nearly a quarter of students ended the 2020 spring semester “essentially truant.” In Los Angeles, the situation was even more dire: Four in 10 students simply failed to participate regularly in remote-learning programs during the first pandemic spring.

Zoom school in many cases amounted to no school in the next year as well. According to our best estimate, by the time schools let out for summer in May or June 2021, the average American public-school student had experienced 65 school days without any contact whatsoever from their schools or teachers—no in-person classes, no Zoom classes, no videoconferences, no telephone calls. That’s more than a third of a school year without schooling, full stop.

The losses, moreover, weren’t evenly distributed. Richer kids got more in-person schooling than poorer kids. And even when they were physically locked out of buildings, richer kids got more, and more effective, Zoom schooling than poorer kids. In public schools, students with household incomes below $25,000 experienced about 76 days, or nearly half a school year, without schooling at all. Students with household incomes above $200,000, in contrast, lost about 54 days—still considerable, but roughly a month less lost schooling than their lower-income peers.

Many elite private schools, meanwhile, avoided pandemic-related schooling loss almost entirely. Of the Forbes top 20 private schools, our research found that 14 met fully in person for the entire 2020–21 school year. Even when they closed their buildings, elite private schools had an easier time facilitating remote instruction, thanks to low student-teacher ratios and access (for both students and teachers) to technology.

Overall, the rich kids who attend private schools had both less and better remote schooling. And private-school parents surveyed in February 2021, unsurprisingly, were twice as likely as public-school parents to report that their children were developing very well. The rich also voted with their feet: Independent schools reported increased enrollment over the course of the pandemic.

Lost schooling shows up as “unfinished” academic learning, measured according to standardized test scores. Even in schools that closed only in spring 2020 and reopened more or less on time the following fall, students a full year later were about two months behind academically where they would have normally been. And when schools stayed closed longer, students fell even further behind, with the poorest students losing out the most. High-poverty schools faced the greatest obstacles to effective online education—including sometimes having trouble making any contact with students at all. Students in high-poverty schools that remained physically closed for the majority of the 2020–21 school year fell more than a full semester behind as measured by standardized tests administered nationwide.

Lost academic opportunities bleed into life beyond the classroom, including most immediately by influencing post-high-school plans. Once again, this harm was concentrated among low-income students: In national surveys, nearly half of low-income high-school graduates in the class of 2020 reported changed future education plans because of the pandemic, compared with about one-quarter of students who had never been eligible for free- or reduced-price meals. Changed plans lead to changed futures. Community colleges, which disproportionately serve low-income and first-generation college students, experienced a stunning 12 percent enrollment drop in the fall of 2020 compared with the year prior; community-college enrollment in California fell even further, with Black and Latino students suffering the worst declines. Historically Black, predominantly minority, and tribal colleges and universities all also experienced significant enrollment declines during the 2020–21 academic year. By contrast, in some cases, enrollment in predominantly white colleges and universities declined at far lower rates, and selective four-year colleges, which disproportionately serve wealthy students, saw enrollment rise.

Standardized test results and college-enrollment figures create visible measures of learning loss. But schooling loss during the height of the pandemic inevitably hurt children in other ways, too. Parents, teachers, doctors, and students themselves all see harms that can be hard to measure and resist a simple summing up, but they aren’t any less important.

Most immediately, a year of Zoom school unavoidably meant more screen time and less exercise. One study showed that increased screen time triggered a spike in childhood myopia diagnoses for kids ages 6 to 8. Because many low-income students depend on their schools to provide free- or reduced-price breakfast and lunch, they and their families experienced heightened food insecurity whenever schools closed during the pandemic (and non-school-based meal programs proved to be inadequate replacements). Some children—especially low-income, Black, and Latino students—went hungry, and for many more, empty calories replaced nutritious foods. Even just a few months into the pandemic, as children exercised less and ate worse, their risk of obesity increased. Once again, these harms fell hardest on children from marginalized families. In one study, public-school students were 1.5 times as likely to report decreased physical fitness as private-school students; in another study, kids whose schools had closed were two times more likely to spend less time outside and to get less exercise than kids whose schools stayed open.

Other aspects of children’s physical health also suffered. Schools form a bridge between families and the health-care system by, for instance, encouraging vaccinations against childhood communicable diseases. The CDC now assesses that among pandemic-era kindergartners, the rates of routine vaccinations for potentially fatal diseases such as measles and diphtheria have fallen below the threshold required for herd immunity (from 95 to 94 percent). Schools also normally provide dental-care access to an estimated 1 million Medicaid-enrolled children. Over the course of the pandemic, parents with Medicaid were almost four times as likely as parents with private insurance to report that they couldn’t get any dentist appointments for their children.

Shutting children out of schools (especially when Zoom school meant no school) put intense pressure on their emotional well-being. A CDC survey of high-school students from January to June 2021 found that nearly half had “felt persistently sad or hopeless” over the previous year—a 20 percent jump since 2019—and an astonishing one-fifth had “seriously considered attempting suicide,” representing a smaller but still concerning 5 percent increase over pre-pandemic levels. These average rates were even worse for girls, who also had higher rates of emergency-room visits and suicide attempts. Adolescents also reported skyrocketing rates of emotional and physical abuse at home during the pandemic. According to one study, teenagers’ self-reported rates of parental emotional abuse were four times higher during the pandemic than in 2013, and rates of parental physical abuse nearly doubled. Figures such as these have led the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association to declare a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.

School guidance counselors also noticed a pronounced shift in students’ mental health. In a survey conducted by The New York Times, 94 percent reported increased signs of anxiety and depression, 88 percent reported observing increased difficulties with emotional self-regulation, and 73 percent reported that students had greater difficulties in solving conflicts with friends. One survey participant from a high school in Portland, Oregon, summed up the situation: “I’ve seen more physical fights this year than in my 15 years combined.” These impressions are bolstered by district data; in Denver public schools, for instance, fights were up 21 percent in the fall of 2021 over pre-pandemic levels. Strikingly, high schoolers who felt connected to somebody at their school—whether a peer or an adult such as a teacher or a guidance counselor—reported much lower rates of mental distress and suicidal thoughts. School closures, however, broke these protective connections and left the most vulnerable children most isolated.

The stresses of pandemic parenting are by now familiar, and the role that school closures play in producing them is dramatic. In one CDC survey, parents whose children’s schools had closed were nearly twice as likely to report concerns about job stability, child-care challenges, and difficulty sleeping as parents whose children’s schools remained fully open for in-person learning. The strains that school closures imposed on teachers were, if anything, greater still. The pandemic required teachers to work in unfamiliar and enormously stressful ways, without much training, adequate support, or even basic health safeguards (including personal protective equipment). Educators in many districts had to—and still have to—contend with chronic staffing shortages, leading to expanded class sizes and reduced or eliminated planning periods.

Parents’ and teachers’ interests were sometimes pitted against each other as communities and school boards navigated the tension between the educational needs of students, on the one hand, and workplace safety on the other. And they had to navigate this tension when the communal hub where teachers, students, and parents usually come together to talk things through—the school—was closed.

Many factors are no doubt driving the rise in aggression at school-board meetings over topics as diverse as mask mandates, race, gender, sexuality, history, civics, and even social-emotional learning. But school closures and all that they entailed surely haven’t helped. Nor are their effects likely to recede anytime soon. Parents remain stressed out and even enraged, while teachers are demoralized and burned out. Many educators fear a wave of teacher resignations. If the wave does come, pandemic school closures could continue long after the direct threat of COVID has receded.

One lesson of the pandemic is that, for all their inadequacies, schools do work, and for all their inequities, they provide a more equal setting than the worlds they draw children out of. Kids need to be in school—for their academic learning and for their health and safety. Parents need kids to be in school to do their jobs and keep their sanity. And communities need kids to be in school to sustain their solidarity.

Curing the many harms that school closures have imposed will take money—a lot of it. The $190 billion in federal pandemic-relief funds allocated to schools is barely enough to address the unfinished academic learning that dominates conventional narratives of pandemic schooling, let alone all the other challenges that students and teachers face.

A broad cure will also take a lot of imagination: to find new and better ways to deliver the many services that now run through physical presence specifically in schools. Effectively delivering these services will require flexibility and resilience, not least because school closures will likely continue. In just the past two years, and apart from COVID, schools have closed their doors because of wildfires, floods, violence or threats of violence, teacher and bus-driver shortages, strikes, and budget shortfalls.

Despite all the losses just rehearsed, the pandemic years also reveal some better approaches to post-pandemic schooling. They have driven states and districts to experiment with decoupling the delivery of family services from physical presence inside school buildings. In Mississippi, for example, State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright told us in an email that she collaborated “with the medical community over 18 months” to direct $17.6 million in federal funding to expand telehealth and teletherapy for students statewide, bringing new “on-site physical and mental health services to our students and communities, including those in rural areas.”

Another lesson of the pandemic is that it will pay to diversify the schools that kids are in. Different kids experience school in different ways, so although all kids need to be in school, not all kids need to be in school in exactly the same way. Every educator can tell stories of academic successes during Zoom school among students who are shy or have social anxiety, who suffer from illnesses or disabilities that make attending school difficult, who live in unstable circumstances, who have special talents, or who need on occasion to work or care for others during the school day.

Even Zoom school, for all its many challenges, has shown that children and families can be served in multiple ways, not all of which require attending school in person, five days a week, for six or seven hours a day. Although the experiment worked poorly for many students, it did work well for some.

The pandemic has amounted to a comprehensive assault on the American public school. It strained the ties—not just physical but also social and even psychological—that connect American families and children to the schools that are essential for delivering almost every support our welfare state provides. Kids missed out on all of it while schools were closed: not just academic learning but also nutrition, and exercise, and friendship networks, and stable relationships with caring adults, and health care, and access to social workers, and even the attention, at home, of parents unburdened by the need to provide child care during school hours.

School closures withdrew these services and supports in an era when Americans, and especially young Americans, were already losing faith in their institutions, and when community ties were already fraying. These abstractions have concrete consequences: Even as independent schools have increased enrollment, the nation’s public schools have lost more than 1 million students since 2020, and the districts that stayed remote the longest have suffered the biggest losses. In effect, millions of Americans are rejecting the central mechanism through which American society supports its children across all facets of their lives.

The disruption that the pandemic caused to American children’s lives has no historical precedent; the harms that this disruption has imposed on them, taken all together, are similarly large. Our response needs to be on a scale sufficient to meet the harms that students have already endured—and to create a more resilient system to meet future challenges, whether new variants of concern, climate-change-driven displacement, or other threats. We have barely begun.