The COVID Academic Slide: Fall 2020

Parents and students face great uncertainty about the upcoming school year. Some districts will begin the school year remotely, re-evaluating the possibility of returning to the classroom later in the year, some schools plan to open with students in attendance immediately, and others are planning a remote learning experience for the entire year. Many people are worried that kids lose their forward momentum with learning and even worse, lose skills they’ve already learned. You’ve probably heard the term “summer slide,” which refers to educational losses that take place over the summers. Are kids now about to enter a period of COVID academic slide?

How stressful this must be for all concerned! What about single, working parents with a young child or children? Or kids with special needs? What if parents had difficulties themselves when in school, and don’t feel up to the task of monitoring their child’s education? What about the health risks to those students and teachers who re-enter crowded environments? How will the circumstances in each district affect a child’s academic growth and social and emotional learning? Sadly, the situation presents more questions than answers right now.

Spring’s Sneak Preview

I talked with many parents whose kids finished the previous school year at home via remote learning. Many found the situation difficult, some to the point of unworkability. Parents who juggled the new demands of working from home themselves were greatly distracted by the needs of their kids’ schoolwork. Meanwhile, those parents employed in vital services had to go to work every day. Their kids had to try to figure out how to become self-starters educationally. It didn’t always work.

A frazzled mom tries to work from home while being distracted by noisy kids and pets. How will parents help their kids to avoid the COVID academic slide this school year?

The Losses Started Immediately

A huge subset of kids lost significant academic traction during the few weeks that wrapped up the last school year. Parents on every social platform made jokes about how much wine it was taking to do “this home-school thing.” Others jokingly declared their child’s “graduation” because the whole proposition was so overwhelming.

I also spoke with kids about their thoughts on the end of the last school year. Many felt so overwhelmed that they just checked out. Most of them said they played video games as a way to avoid the stressful situation entirely. Others—especially those who have learning challenges—felt angry and frustrated. They missed the help they were used to getting in the classroom. Sadly, it didn’t take very many days of falling behind to derail the educational train.

The Snowball Effect

It doesn’t stop there. Due to COVID-19 recommendations, many families have had fewer social connections, travel opportunities, and chances for educational stimulation this summer. The traditional “summer slide” of educational loss has become a summer avalanche—a COVID academic slide. In many ways, it’s understandable: people are bored, scared, and overwhelmed with the open-ended-ness of the pandemic. It’s human nature to revert to less healthy coping skills when everything about life changes. Parents and kids alike are spending much more time hunched over screens or standing in front of the refrigerator. Now that previous distractions are less available, people are doing whatever they can to escape current realities. This might even include putting schoolwork on the back burner.

But here’s the thing: we don’t know how long this pandemic is going to last. The future is filled with unknowns, so putting life on pause isn’t really an option.

Let’s temporarily set aside debates about vaccines—when they’ll arrive, whether they’ll be safe, who will and won’t take them. Most scientists currently estimate that our lives will continue to be greatly affected by the pandemic for many months. These effects on our lives includes the academic lives of students.

Long-Term Consequences

What will be the result of many more weeks, or worse yet, months, of loss of academic traction and momentum? Will kids experience lifelong effects from these academic losses, struggles, and traumas? How will kids feel about themselves if they have difficulty moving forward academically?

How will the COVID academic slide impact kids’ self-worth, and their belief in their own potential? In ten or twenty years, we will be able to look back and see the educational consequences of the pandemic. But for now, pondering its personal and societal effects moves us to take stock of things.

Practical Help for the Family During the Pandemic

I wish there were easy answers. While I am grateful that some students will sail right through these changed circumstances and avoid COVID academic slide, far too many will not. And due to the variability of each family’s circumstances, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. But some good guidelines to consider follow below. Much like ancient mariners found their bearings using the stars, here are a few tried-and-true principles that can be used for navigation of difficult or puzzling environments.

A mother and son and baby load the washing machine together. Working and schooling from home requires extra kindness and cooperation to help families exist peacefully during troubled times and to help kids focus on school and avoid COVID academic slide.
  • Be open and honest together. Ask questions, and really listen to the answers. Are your kids afraid to go back to school or more worried about what might happen if they do not? Are you, as a parent, having misgivings about how to balance work and home demands? Talk about them. How do you each feel about homeschooling? What challenges might be encountered? If everyone feels like a part of the same team, there is one less reason to feel isolated.
  • Do your best to foster a sense of cooperation. With so many tasks and jobs to juggle, each family member has an opportunity to contribute to the overall functioning of the group. Make a real effort to show appreciation, even for the little contributions each person makes.
  • Be kind to one another. Everyone is struggling to cope with uncertainty, grief, and discomfort. Adjustment takes time. By modeling good coping skills, parents reassure their kids that things are going to be ok.
  • Remember the value of patience. As each person feels the normal ups and downs of mood and emotion during this crisis, our bandwidth for chaos, noise, and interruption can narrow. It takes a concerted effort not to take it out on ourselves or our loved ones.
  • Read together regularly. Sharing stories together draws parents and children closer together, fostering bonding and a warm sense of belonging. Even ten or fifteen minutes together can create a meaningful nightly ritual that everyone can look forward to. It can provide children (and parents too!) with a sense of safety, security, and routine.
A father and son read together in their pjs. Reading together can help kids avoid COVID academic slide.

I wish you well as you begin to find your way through the school year. I look forward to hearing how you are doing, and the creative ways you discover to make it work as well as possible in these troubled times. You are not alone.

Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.