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What Do Students Need To Recover When School Closes For Months?


Of all the children enrolled in school - all the children enrolled around the world, 90% of them - nine of every 10 - are out of school due to the coronavirus. That includes nearly all the kids in the United States. Most Americans have never seen anything like this, although we can learn from past examples around the world. Anya Kamenetz of NPR's education team has been asking what past events are relevant, and experts in education in emergencies, as it's called, point to some of the most dire occasions in recent history.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: When we talk about students that are out of school for months at a time, you're looking at the Rwandan genocide, you're looking at Syrian refugees, Rohingya refugees, you know, students in West Africa during the Ebola crisis. So really, you have to go to very extreme situations to understand not only what it's like for students when they don't have a school to go to but also what is the recovery and the response.

INSKEEP: Now, it's not suggesting that there's a genocide here in the United States, but that does suggest how extreme an experience we are collectively going through here in the U.S. that that's where you'd have to go for some relevant experience.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. It is pretty sobering. I mean, you know, you can also look at places like my hometown, New Orleans, which, after Katrina, most schools closed down for the entire fall term in 2005. Research showed it took two full years for students to fully make up the learning that they lost.

INSKEEP: So a semester was lost, and it took years to make it up. And there are similar experiences in some of these overseas examples you mentioned?

KAMENETZ: Absolutely. You can see it in Rwanda, in a number of other places where students have gone back to school. And that's because, you know, school interruptions hardly ever happen all by themselves. They usually come with social dislocation, with economic dislocation. And that's definitely what we're seeing here with the coronavirus.

INSKEEP: Which kinds of students do we need to be most concerned about, then?

KAMENETZ: Students that were vulnerable before - lower-income students, perhaps discriminated-against minorities may also take a bigger hit academically. And then, interestingly, some experts said that older students are more vulnerable here. So we could expect to see a spike in the high school dropout rate as well as a fall in enrollments in college.

INSKEEP: I would have hoped or perhaps assumed that an older kid would be in a stronger position and a little more resilient. But that's not the case?

KAMENETZ: Well, teenagers, they're at this point where they can kind of - they might be separating from education. They might have to work to support their families. If they're girls, especially, they might have to take care of younger siblings. And then there's adolescent brain development. I talked to Sarah Smith at the International Rescue Committee, and she said adolescence is this time when peers and mentors are so, so important.

SARAH SMITH: If those are disrupted - if those ties to those people are disrupted, that can really affect their overall well-being.

INSKEEP: So it's the time when the person is formed and also the time - when you say separated from education, a teenager, of course, can drop out in a way that a 10-year-old can't.

KAMENETZ: Exactly. And they're more prone to do that, especially if they don't have the hope for the future. And that's really what we're kind of worried about here.

INSKEEP: So based on this global experience, with kids being out of school for long periods of time, what helps? What makes the experience a little better?

KAMENETZ: So in the international aid context, there's a lot of creativity where people are using technology and media, for example, to keep kids connected to their teachers or to the learning context. So several years ago, during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, in Liberia, there were radio lessons broadcast to keep kids connected to school. And then right now there's experiments going on with Syrian refugee children and Rohingya refugee children between Sesame and the International Rescue Committee, where they're creating media for early learning and social and emotional development. And that media is meant to be shared between children and their caregivers.

I'm seeing teachers everywhere using text messages, video chat, any means that they can to kind of keep that continuity going and keep students feeling connected.

INSKEEP: You know, it's really powerful and also troubling but also inspiring to think of American schoolchildren having something to learn from the experience of refugees.

KAMENETZ: I find it - I'm choosing to find it inspiring, Steve, because the expert that I talked to really helped me see how education can be the cornerstone of a nation's recovery from a crisis because education is really our collective work to bring hope and bring energy for the future and prepare our young people for a better future. And that's what we all need so much right now.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anya Kamenetz, thank you so much.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz
Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
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