K-12 students across the country ended the last school year about four to five months behind academically, relative to their usual progress. That’s the disturbing finding of a report released over the summer by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. And though the report’s findings were not especially surprising given the many obvious challenges remote learning and the pandemic posed, its documentation of learning loss is significant and alarming: High schoolers are more likely to drop out of school; seniors, particularly those from low-income families, are less likely to go to college; and majority Black schools — as well as those with large Hispanic or low-income student populations — saw some of the sharpest declines in academic achievement.
It goes without saying, but states and school districts have to do all that they can to reverse these trends. Failing to do so would not only be a dereliction of governments’ duty to serve school kids, but it would also all but destine a generation of students to underachievement and further widen the racial and socioeconomic learning and opportunity gaps. The good news is that the pandemic’s disruptive nature and the federal government’s COVID relief spending create an opportunity for schools to make bold and creative changes that would cater to their students’ needs.
The federal government has allocated over $1.8 billion for Massachusetts’ schools from the COVID rescue package that Congress passed earlier this year. And if Congress successfully passes the two infrastructure bills it’s debating now — which it should — then states will have even more funds to distribute to their schools. How that money is spent is critical in determining whether schools can successfully reverse the learning loss students experienced during the pandemic. In Massachusetts, those funds should be used to hire more teachers and school staff, and to strengthen after-school and summer learning programs and establish new ones.
One of the biggest challenges for students at the moment, according to former Massachusetts secretary of education Paul Reville, is that they feel disengaged from the learning environment that schools provide. “We have a great many students who, by virtue of the disruption of the system over the past 18 months, have been disconnected from the enterprise of learning, have been disconnected from the schools, from their teachers,” Reveille told the Globe editorial board. “These relationships have been fractured. In many cases, the students have been alienated and in some cases just adrift.”
In order to get students reengaged, schools have to invest in counseling and other forms of mentorships that can increase the interactions between educators and their students. That means hiring more counselors who can regularly meet with students to see how they’re doing academically and keep track of their off-campus environments. That way, schools can more swiftly notice when students are facing hardships like housing insecurity, and respond accordingly.
One good example of this is the “navigator” program that Nashville schools implemented during the pandemic, which connects school staff with students on a regular basis in order to keep track of which students are at risk of falling through the cracks. When students and their families are struggling, navigators can connect them with the needed resources to help them. And in Boston, Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s “Children’s Cabinet” — which establishes a policy-making group that coordinates city services that help students and disadvantaged families — will likely make anti-poverty resources easier to access, and creates a service foundation that schools can tap into.
It’s also important for schools to invest in connecting their students with mental health services, be it on or off campus. According to the McKinsey report, the pandemic exacerbated mental health problems among students, with 35 percent of parents having expressed great concern over their children’s mental health. The rates of concern for Black and Hispanic parents are even higher.
Beyond getting students reengaged, schools must make up for lost learning by providing after-school and summer programs so that students don’t continue to fall behind academically. And if schools implement better, individualized counseling, then the qualitative assessments of students that counseling would provide would make it easier to target these programs to the people who need them most. This moment might also be a time for schools to experiment with adjusting school hours or extending the academic year in order to fit in more material for students across the board.
Ultimately, adjusting school programs is only part of the solution. As states rebuild from the pandemic, addressing contributing factors to academic underperformance like poverty and homelessness is key to creating more equity in academic achievement. With all the federal funds already assigned to states — with potentially more dollars on the way — Massachusetts schools need to seize the moment and do just that.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.