COVID-19 School Closures Did, In Fact, Hurt Student Proficiency

By: Shannon Whitworth

The state of our schools today, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, has a lot of people concerned.  With kids out of school for so long, it is no wonder that proficiency rates in key academic areas are declining. In fact, a study out earlier this month from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), shows that the situation is likely worse than most of us could imagine. And unfortunately, this is representative of what educators are seeing around the nation.

According to the WILL study, prior to the pandemic, nearly 60% of Wisconsin students could neither read or write at grade level.  And from there it only gets worse:  School districts which remained closed for in-person instruction in the Fall of 2020 saw a drop in English proficiency of nearly 2% and nearly 5% in math.  And as one might anticipate, the more economically disadvantaged the students, the more proficiency in both subjects dropped.  Districts with 100% economically-disadvantaged students saw drops of 6-7% in proficiency in those subjects. In Wisconsin, a state which already had the largest achievement gap between black and white students in the country, the data also showed that the higher the percentage of African-American students within a district, the more likely the schools in that district were to remain closed.

Other states experienced similar drops in proficiency among public-school students. Data released by the state of Illinois in December shows that rate of K-12 students who read at grade level fell 17% since 2019.  In North Carolina, K-12 students went from a 58.8% proficiency rate during the 2018-19 school year to a 45.4% proficiency rate in the 2020-21 school year.

Given the COVID-19 virus’s minimal impact on physically healthy people under the age of 18, one of the most egregious and unsound decisions made collectively during the pandemic was to close our K-12 schools en masse, indefinitely. While a majority school of systems have now re-opened, some have yet to reopen.  For instance, Flint Michigan announced Jan. 25th that its schools will remain shuttered indefinitely. Due to the pandemic, the majority black city has not had proficiency testing, but was in the single digits when they were tested last.

Throughout the pandemic, one of the largest freedoms school choice gives parents is the opportunity to enroll their kids in a school that values in-person learning. Thankfully through programs such as the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP) and the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, parents, regardless of economic status are increasingly having a say in where they send their kids to school.

I am the director of the Free Enterprise Academy at Milwaukee Lutheran High School in Wisconsin.  It is a private school in the WPCP, where nearly all of the students (most come from the inner city of Milwaukee) take advantage of attending this private school on a state-funded voucher.  Not only does the school’s private status allow it to maintain biblical values, when it comes to COVID-19 the school has been able to stay open. Milwaukee Lutheran and other private schools have a strong commitment to in-person instruction which stands in stark contrast to Milwaukee Public Schools, which appear to close and resort to virtual learning at the drop of a hat.

I have my own kids in another parochial school just outside of Milwaukee County.  One of the things I appreciate about the school is how strident the pastor is that the school will never shut down again.  If a nuclear bomb went off, I’m confident the pastor and the principal would be out greeting students as they came in for school the next morning.  That type of courage is taught by example to children at a young age, and I am thankful to have the choice to send my children to a school with people of such character.  Every parent should have that option.

The rationale for continued school closures is absolutely shameful.  COVID-19 is serious, and we can all appreciate both teachers’ health concerns and staffing challenges.  But when one accepts employment in a building filled with children, you know that you are going to work in a petri dish.  I have been under the weather a few times while working at Milwaukee Lutheran, and I can say from experience that one of the motivating factors to get back as soon as possible is that the other teachers immediately jump in to pick up my slack.

However, with more teachers absent due to COVID-19 these days, one of the solutions implemented by Milwaukee Lutheran’s Principal, Adam Kirsch, has been to find room in the school’s already strained budget to hire dedicated substitute teachers to help fill in the gaps. Keeping our kids in-person has been that important. If we can do it, there is no reason why a public school district with millions of dollars in pandemic-relief funds can’t.

Without a doubt, this pandemic and school shutdowns have created immense learning loss for all students, but particularly the most vulnerable. Now parents are looking to get their kids back on track academically and all should have the choice to send their kids to the school they think will do that best.

Whitworth is a Bradley Freedom Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and the director of the Free Enterprise Academy at Milwaukee Lutheran High School.

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