What we’re learning about student performance during COVID is scary. But you can help, Editorial Board writes

The next steps are things we should have done anyway. Better funding and less disruption for our schools.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Orem Junior High School, empty and closed on Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

It is an experiment that no reputable social scientist would countenance. That no caring parents would volunteer their children for.

With little or no notice, close schools across the nation. Send children home to continue their education, cut off from their friends and teachers, bus drivers and lunch ladies, coaches and drama clubs, librarians and counselors.

Expect harried parents — some also stuck at home, some still expected to go to work — to keep their kids’ focus on lessons supposedly available online, even if they live in a household without multiple computers or a reliable high-speed internet connection. Then let some of them come back to school, and send them home again, individually or in groups, depending on what might seem to be a random and frequently changing set of criteria.

And see what happens.

As dreadful as such a test scenario would be, that’s exactly what we did.Not because anyone wanted to, but because the global COVID-19 pandemic gave us no choice.

So, what did we learn?

We learned that schools matter.

We learned that teachers are important. That online learning, for all its promise, doesn’t replace face-to-face instruction. That the whole social, emotional support network that American education has built up over the past century or two, for all its faults and shortcomings, is better than the alternative.

That’s the only reasonable conclusion to draw from the results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress — aka as the “nation’s report card” — released late last month.

Across the nation, the numbers tanked. The gap between rich and poor, already unacceptably large, got bigger. Experts who shudder when they see a decline of 1 or 2 points were stunned by a national drop of 8 points in the math scores. Utah was able to take some pride in the fact that our statistical crater was not as deep as those in many other states.

The Utah Board of Education’s own report, released earlier in the month, showed that the pandemic was particularly hard on younger students’ reading scores. Utah first graders, for example, went from 67% reading at or above the state’s benchmark in 2019, before pandemic disruptions, to only to 59% in 2021. They bounced back a bit, to 60%, in 2022.

So, what do we do now? Mostly a lot of things we should have done before.

Take our collective responsibility of educating the next generation seriously.

Understand that schools and teachers and administrators and support staff are worth every dime and more. Plow some of the state’s anticipated multi-billion dollar surplus into efforts to pull our schools back to where they were, and then to where they should be.

Creating a healthy environment for our schools was something we were not very good at even before coronaviruses were a thing. Simple steps such as better ventilation and more school nurses would have helped last time, and will be necessary next time.

It will still be up to each of us to support our own children, and other people’s, through volunteering, tutoring, mentoring and contributing.

United Way of Salt Lake coordinates a mentoring and tutoring program. The Davis Education Foundation, just as an example, has programs and facilities that offer assistance to homeless and other in-crisis young people. The Salt Lake Education Foundation offers emergency support for students and families in need of food, health and dental care, clothing and more. Those programs, and others around the state, can use your help.

Online learning proved to be insufficient to the task of a whole nation of school children shifting all at once. But it can still be a useful supplement to classroom learning and now is the time to refine it, before the next pandemic strikes.

Remote learning can also be a preferred path to education for many, especially adolescents who may find the social pressures of spending so much time among mobs of other adolescents too much to bear.

Also, we can stop harassing teachers, administrators and schools boards with off-the-wall and utterly groundless rumors and allegations of pornography being harbored in school libraries, teachers who push students to question their own gender identities or some kind of woke conspiracy to divide us by race. We really don’t need parents, or out-of-town agitators, pretending that the truth about American history, vile as it sometimes was, is something that needs to be hidden from the tender ears of the next generation.

And someone tell Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to stop practicing medicine without a license. Reyes should not be telling the Centers for Disease Control that it should not add new and often-updated COVID vaccinations to the recommended list of student immunizations.

Or does he miss polio?

Assuming the anti-vaxx crowd does not carry the day, and we are spared another wave of COVID or some other highly infectious disease, we should be taking the lessons of the last round of school disruptions to heart.

We need our schools, our teachers and all of our public education structure to be strong and resilient. Never forget what happened when we were forced to abandon it.