Pandemic took a big toll on education

The impact of COVID-19 in Illinois

This article references the report, The State We’re In 2022: A Look at the Impact of COVID-19 on Education in Illinois, produced by Advance Illinois, a bipartisan education policy and advocacy organization. For more on the report, go to advanceillinois.org.

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click to enlarge Pandemic took a big toll on education
Photo courtesy Advance Illinois
The Dec. 15 panel included, from left, Robin Steans, president of Advance Illinois; state Senator Doris Turner of Springfield; Becca Lamon, superintendent of Ball-Chatham School District; and Brian Durham, executive director of the Illinois Community College Board.

"The Covid-19 pandemic, unprecedented in scale and impact, has disrupted every possible facet of education in Illinois," according to the 2022 report issued by Advance Illinois, the leading education research group in Illinois. Robin Steans, president of Advance Illinois, introduced the findings to educators and community leaders in Springfield on Dec. 15. A panel then addressed concerns and future needs.

"There have been massive and deadly disruptions, and through the pandemic many made heroic efforts" Steans said. "The state took huge steps. People did their best when they got handed a situation with no warning and no playbook."

Steans emphasized that the report is not meant to judge. "We must be open about the data and discuss with honest conversation."

Advance Illinois usually issues a report every two years, the last issued in 2019, but with unreliable data during the pandemic, a report was held off until 2022. Data focuses on several areas: student enrollment, attendance, access to instruction, and students' social-emotional development. All data looks at the school year 2020-2021 and is compared to 2019. The facts are sobering.

Student enrollment, whether students were in-person, hybrid or totally remote, declined across the state at almost every level, with early childhood seeing steep declines. Enrollment in the Child Care Assistance Program dropped 20% from 2019. Enrollment in the Preschool for All program dropped 22% – and this data was available to indicate a drop in just this past year. Those affected the most were the youngest children, children from the lowest-income households and Black and LatinX children. Sangamon County matched the state drop of 20% in enrollment during 2020-2021.

Enrollment also declined in K-12 education, with the elementary level seeing the biggest decline: kindergarten enrollment dropped 8% in 2021, while elementary grades dropped 4.4%. Middle school fared better with a drop of 2.4%, and high school basically remained steady with a slight drop at .8%. The areas with the largest enrollment declines were students in rural schools and English language learners. Springfield actually did better than the state average, experiencing a steady enrollment across the K-12 grades during the same time period.

Higher education saw the biggest enrollment decline in community colleges (13.8% drop) while four-year institutions actually gained enrollment in 2020-2021.

Inequities between districts, races and income levels have existed in education across Illinois for many years. The report states that the data, "has laid bare and exacerbated existing inequities across lines of race, income and educational need." Access to high-quality instruction was made worse by the pandemic. Whether children had reliable – or even any – internet service and access to devices during the time schools shut down impacted learning.

Chronic absenteeism, defined as students with absences that account for more than 10% of the school year, increased dramatically – from 18% to 30%. "Attending school has always been a powerful indicator of future success," Steans said. "This data was consistent in all age ranges."

Student emotional well-being has been affected in ways that teachers have never before witnessed. The disruption in the school setting has caused higher incidences of behavior problems since students were isolated from others for so long; they have lost social skills and appropriate interactions and ways to verbalize feelings.

The report outlines many staffing issues schools face. The report states, "Counselors, social workers and psychologists are in short supply." That was true even before the pandemic, but with an increase in students' social-emotional issues, the lack of staff has become more obvious. Recommended ratios compared to current averages show the picture. Recommended ratio of students to counselors should be 450:1 in grades K-5, and 250:1 in grades 6-12. But the statewide average is 569:1. Social worker ratios – recommended at 250:1, currently sits at 552:1. And psychologists should be at 1000:1 but is holding at 1191:1.

The report addresses the impact on teachers being "stretched too thin." Quotes from focus groups and individuals are included in the report. One teacher writes, "This is the hardest year (2021-2022) I've had in 25-plus years ...behavior issues are way up, kids are emotionally fragile, immature, functionally behind, lacking independence – teachers are having to do so much more."

With all of these impacts, it is easy to understand that student academic progress is affected. Declines have occurred in state assessments in reading and math.

After a look at the data, questions were asked of a panel including state Senator Doris Turner; Dr. Becca Lamon, superintendent of Ball-Chatham School District; and Brian Durham, executive director of the Illinois Community College Board. Both Lamon and Durham applauded the innovation and resilience of staff at all levels. Durham said, "Trying to teach some of the career and technical courses online, like automotive, is hard when the students need to use their hands."

Lamon said her biggest worry is the younger children who have been most impacted. "Some children came to kindergarten for the first time this fall, and the parents said they hadn't been out of the home for three years. These children don't know how to interact. This is going to create a 13-year impact, not just in their first year of schooling."

Funding was addressed. "I feel there is a consensus among legislators that education is important and investing in education is needed," Turner said. Steans addressed the upcoming funding challenges: "Some money that has been provided through the federal government, such as for counselors and social workers, will be ending. So how do we backfill that money?" Lamon said, "We have shortages across all areas – cafeteria workers, bus drivers, teachers, and support staff."

The pandemic affected every aspect of education at every level. The impacts will be felt for many years. Lamon said, "The one thing we have to keep doing is building relationships with each other and establish a trusted adult for each child."

Cinda Ackerman Klickna is a former Springfield teacher and past president of the Illinois Education Association.

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