Our colleagues at Advance Illinois have released the latest in their series of reports, The State We’re In 2022—A Look at the Impact of COVID-19 on Education in Illinois. While past reports in the series have focused on school funding and student achievement, the latest report dives into how the pandemic has affected education in Illinois, as much like the pandemic has disrupted our lives, it has also disrupted data availability and quality. The result is one of the first comprehensive looks into how education in Illinois has changed due to COVID-19.
As COVID-19 began to spread in early 2020, schools closed and businesses shut down amid uncertainty about what the pandemic would bring. Looking back, it’s not surprising that enrollment dropped at almost every level from early childhood to college.
In early childhood, the largest decreases in enrollment were younger children, children from low-income households, and children of color. For K-8 schools, enrollment drops were seen in both public and private schools, particularly among white and rural populations and concentrated more among the younger students. Community colleges also saw significant declines in enrollment, most significantly among students of color; however, four-year institutions actually saw increases in student retention and growing enrollment of students of color.
The early childhood education and community college enrollment drops are particularly concerning, as those programs and institutions are critical elements in overcoming income- and race-based disparities in kindergarten readiness and academic success as well as improving lifetime earnings and employment in Illinois.
As schools struggled to shift to online learning, it is not surprising that students from low-income households and students of color were disproportionately affected, as they were significantly less likely to have the digital infrastructure (e.g., broadband internet, tablets, or laptops) needed for remote learning. The result was lost learning time and an increase in the race and income disparities in chronic absenteeism (missing more than 10% of school days) in both elementary and middle schools in Illinois.
The data available also suggests that classroom instruction was also affected as teachers struggled to adapt lessons to computer screens, engage students in learning remotely, and eventually adjust to socially-distanced or hybrid classrooms. Teaching has never been an easy job, and the difficulties encountered during the pandemic illustrate how hard teachers work to engage students in learning.
The pandemic has challenged everyone’s mental health, and children are no exception. In addition to mental health challenges, remote learning, hybrid, and socially-distanced classrooms left students with fewer opportunities to develop critical social and emotional learning skills like working with a group, managing emotions, and persistence on working through challenging assignments.
One bright spot indicated by the 5Essentials Survey is that schools are doing a better job of providing a supportive environment for students. However, schools still struggle to provide all students with the support they need due to a lack of resources and personnel (e.g., counselors, social workers, and psychologists).
While state assessments were conducted during the 2020-2021 school year, lower participation rates—especially among students in remote environments, students of color, English Language Learners, and students from low-income households—make it difficult to draw specific conclusions. Still, performance on both the Illinois Assessment of Readiness and the SAT declined significantly for all grades in both English and Math. The 9th Grade On-Track rate, which strongly predicts high school graduation rates, also declined.
The Road Ahead
Like so much of our lives the past two years, the pandemic has disrupted not only our children’s education but also our ability to track how they are doing. What data is available, though, is concerning. The preliminary information from the 2021-2022 school year indicate that things have not “gone back to normal” even as students returned to the classroom. Enrollments remain down across all levels, and teachers are reporting significant gaps in both student achievement and social and emotional skills. For the youngest, the lack of early childhood education opportunities will likely echo throughout their school years and into adulthood.
The road ahead may be rocky, but the needs are quite visible:
- Increased resources are needed for schools to help recover from lost learning opportunities to get students back on track.
- Increased mental health and social and emotional resources are just as critical as those for student achievement.
- Teachers, who have faced perhaps the most difficult two years of their careers, need both mental health supports and additional resources as they work to get students back on grade level.