COVID’s Literacy Fallout

    Lauren Page laments the way the pandemic affected students worldwide, whether they caught the virus or not

    The metaphor “summer slide” has been used for decades to describe the essential skills that children lose over the summer when they’re out of school. Though this term was popular before 2020, unfortunately it is now the least of many parents’ concerns. Over the past year and a half, everyone has experienced twists and turns like no others through a pandemic that exposed the world’s strengths and weaknesses. One of the biggest transitions that occurred within the COVID-19 pandemic while everyone was finding their “new normal” was the shift to remote/distance learning.

    When children became aware of the transition to remote learning and the possibility of no school, many cheered and celebrated, but when COVID-19 forced over a billion children out of classrooms, often with little or no resources at home, the excitement came to an end. The world’s never-ending struggle to achieve higher literacy rates has been an uphill battle for centuries, and the pandemic became its biggest enemy. With literacy rates already trickling downward prior to the pandemic, remote learning was of little help to much of the world’s youth population. Andrew Kay, CEO of the World Literacy Foundation, stated that over “770 million people in the globe can’t read or write a single word and a further two billion people struggle to read a sentence” (World Literacy Foundation, 2020). With existing literacy gaps as large as this, the pandemic only caused a downward spiral to the lives of children and their futures.

    Without crucial literacy skills, children might never be able to reach their full potential and may suffer the consequences of unemployment, poverty, starvation, and many more lifelong problems. When students were sent home from in-person school to learn remotely, educational gaps became greater than ever. With so many who cannot afford Wi-Fi and have no resources to log on to virtual class, and with the varied quality of online classes, the consequences were inevitable; there was not much teachers—the modern-day heroes—could do.

    Stanford University published a study on oral reading fluency (ORF) that found that “students in general did not develop any reading skills during the spring—growth stalled when schooling was interrupted and remained stagnant throughout the summer,” according to Ben Domingue, professor at Stanford University. Despite literacy rates creeping up soon afterward, “the growth was not robust enough to make up from the gaps in the spring,” illustrating life-altering changes that these children would never know occurred (Domingue 1). The ORF study also discovered that students’ reading fluency in second and third grade was now approximately 30% behind what would be expected in a typical year.

    A multitude of studies are being done on the children affected by the pandemic. A new study from the UN Cultural Agency reveals that “more than 100 million more children than expected are falling behind the minimum proficiency level in reading due to COVID-related school closures” (United Nations, 2021). Learning losses during this pandemic have unfortunately been extremely high, potentially limiting students in the future. A tweet by UNESCO reports that one year into the pandemic, two in three students worldwide were still affected by full or partial school closures. Schooling has been disrupted permanently, and a return to prepandemic states, according to One Year into COVID, might take a decade. Whether it was the unavailable resources, the curricula set that were not able to be fully effectuated online, the lack of focus in students, or the issues accessing or connecting to the internet, the world, and most importantly the young learners of the world, suffered.

    Even before the crisis, millions of children and adults were suffering, but at least in-person school was able to help children. Adults had fewer resources, and during the pandemic, “90% of 49 adult literacy programs were either fully or partially suspended during the lockdown” (UNESCO, 2020). Both students and their parents have experienced anxiety and financial and mental pressure during this “literacy slide.” Teachers strived to keep their students attentive, focused, and in class, but the demands of such a pandemic were never anticipated. As a result, the pandemic has left students without access to learning and parents having to decide between teaching their kids or working to support the family.

    The Digital Divide 
    Even in the U.S., children in the lower income category were definitely hurt the most. Whether it was not having the resources, such as a computer, to connect to virtual class, or not having the ability to pay for Wi-Fi, many struggled to learn remotely. In rural areas, internet connectivity is not always an option, and even where it is available, it can be priced out of reach for many. “Broadband service can cost up to $349.95 a month in California, and up to $299.95 in parts of Alaska, Kentucky, and Virginia,” according to data on BroadBandNow.com (Richards et al., 2021). Even when districts supplied the children with devices, many would break, causing further struggle. In Virginia, only about half the state’s 252,000 public school students could get online, because many did not have internet access or the devices to be able to learn remotely (Richards et al., 2021). According to a report in USA Today, the number of Black children who met literacy benchmarks dropped by 14% to a low of 31%, and for Latino students, it dropped 12% to 30% (Stein, 2020).

    The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the differences between students who are able to afford resources and are supported to read and those who are not. Fortunately, organizations like Save the Children, which documented that 500 million of the poorest and most vulnerable children have no access to distance learning, have started efforts to help these learners slowly regain what they have lost in a number of countries (Gallagher, 2020).

    The pandemic has been a long and hard road with a distant end in sight. It has caused worldwide distress and a new type of disadvantage for children. No longer is the summer slide the area to fear; it is the literacy slide that went on despite teachers’ efforts to make remote school similar to prepandemic school. Though the pandemic was a hard time for all, the ones truly affected, and set on a path to an unsteady, unclear future, were the world’s marginalized children.

    References
    United Nations (2021). “100 Million More Children Fail Basic Reading Skills Because of COVID-19,” UN News, news. https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/03/1088392.

    Gallagher, Bianca (2020). “Keeping Literacy Alive during COVID-19,” Save the Children, www.savethechildren.net/blog/keeping-literacy-alive-during-COVID-19.

    OECD (2021), The State of School Education: One Year into the COVID Pandemic, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/201dde84-en.

    UNESCO (2020). “Literacy Teaching and Learning in the COVID-19 Crisis and beyond at Heart of the International Literacy Day,” en.unesco.org/news/literacy-teaching-and-learning-COVID-19-crisis-and-beyond-heart-international-literacy-day.

    Richards, Erin, Elinor Aspegren, and Erin Mansfield (2021). “A Year into the Pandemic, Thousands of Students Still Can’t Get Reliable WiFi for School. The Digital Divide Remains Worse than Ever,” USA Today, www.usatoday.com/story/news/education/2021/02/04/COVID-online-school-broadband-internet-laptops/3930744001.

    Stein, Perry (2020). “In D.C., Achievement Gap Widens, Early Literacy Progress Declines during Pandemic, Data Show,” Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/data-indicate-worsening-early-literacy-progress-and-widening-achievement-gap-among-district-students/2020/10/30/bebe2914-1a25-11eb-82db-60b15c874105_story.html.

    World Literacy Foundation (2020). “Pandemic Causing Catastrophic Rise in Illiteracy, Hidden Rates of COVID 19 Being Revealed,” www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/pandemic-causing-catastrophic-rise-in-illiteracy-hidden-rates-of-COVID-19-being-revealed-301125061.html.

    Lauren Page is in tenth grade at Ransom Everglades School, Miami, Florida. She has a passion for helping children and started her 501c(3) foundation Page by Page, which has delivered over 300,000 books within the community to underserved schools and children, when in second grade. www.pagebypage.us

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