Learning loss in a year of chaos

Frank CagleFrank Talk

I don’t know if we can fully appreciate the long-term impact the past year will have on the next generation. The havoc that the pandemic has wrought on education will not be obvious for some time.

The closest thing to such widespread disruption I can think of is the Great Depression. My parents were members of the Greatest Generation, and my mother told me what it was like growing up with hit or miss classroom time.

Frank Cagle

Of course, the on-again, off-again classroom time of this year can’t compare to the decade of the 1930s. But this year isn’t over. And it is possible that schools will be disrupted going into the next school year.

During the Depression, school boards did not have the money to operate so teachers were let go. Class sizes ballooned to the point that students got very little instruction. One-room schools came back. Schools were only open half a year and it took two years for one grade.

In the rural South, high schools already had a problem with dropouts. During the bad years, dropouts became endemic. A boy who needed to go to work to help the family would not go two years to make one.

The boys who got drafted into the army when World War II began were malnourished and half educated. During the post war 1950s, the national economy roared. But in the South, there were men ready and able to work but jobs were scarce. These high school dropouts ran service stations, worked at day labor. Many of them went north to work on assembly lines.

The disruptions of the current pandemic should be short-term. We hope the economy comes roaring back. But I don’t think it’s an either-or question. We could remain in a long-term recession interspersed with virus outbreaks and breaks from school.

I don’t know whether the long stretch without school from last spring to the fall will be a permanent handicap going forward. We know from studies that summer vacation often requires review in the fall to catch students back up to where they were when school let out. What about six months? What does that do to performance scores?

Distance learning. Then classroom instruction. Then outbreaks and back to distance learning. Superintendent Bob Thomas and his staff have done a tremendous job dealing with crisis after crisis, but the turmoil and the ever-changing conditions must have a negative effect on students.

And there is no proof that things will get back to normal this coming semester. What happens if half the students refuse vaccination? What happens if next school year is disrupted? Imagine the condition of rural school systems, already struggling to catch up, hammered again by school closings and distance learning without sufficient technology to handle what is a massive job.

There are a lot of things that will never be the same when we return to normal. First of all, how will we know when normal returns? And if schools return to some semblance of normal how many children will have fallen through the cracks? How many frustrated poor children will have dropped out?

The future doesn’t look as grim as that of the Great Depression, but we could see a scaled-down model.

What will test scores look like after all the mayhem and disruption? What effect will low scores have on the evaluation of teachers who had the courage to enter schools and try to teach under terrible conditions?

Gov. Bill Lee is calling a special session of the legislature to assess changes that need to be made in education. Legislators need to ask themselves what they would have done if they were responsible for keeping children safe, the staff healthy and also prepare students for performance tests.

What won’t you believe? Did you find out on Facebook that Dominion voting machines were being transported to an AT&T facility in downtown Nashville? President Trump contracted with AT&T to do a forensic audit of the machines to see if they were programmed to turn his votes to Joe Biden. But the FBI blew up an RV outside the building to destroy the evidence. But it’s possible that instead of a bomb it was a missile strike. You can see contrails on YouTube of what could be a missile headed for downtown. (Maybe you can see them, I can’t.)

A Catoosa, Georgia, attorney named Jeremy Jones admitted to the Chattanooga Times Free-Press that he concocted the tale as a joke and as a social experiment. Jones is vice-president of the county Republican Party and an election observer.

AT&T does not have a contract to audit machines. The destroyed building is full of switches and technology but is not a lab for such investigations. The bomber’s DNA was found in the RV and he has been identified. But people are quick to believe that the FBI would blow up a street in downtown Nashville.

That’s almost as scary and dangerous as an RV full of dynamite.

Frank Cagle is a veteran newspaper editor and columnist.


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