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Impact of COVID-19 on North Carolina’s children—Part One

(This is part one of a two-part blog.)

With mask mandates ending, community events are now being scheduled and businesses are opening more fully. If it seems that the day-to-day impact of COVID-19 is over, that conclusion is far from true for students in North Carolina.

While the physical health threats of the pandemic may be waning, we are just beginning to assess how difficult and detrimental the last 24 months have been for K-12 students: children learned much less, creating a learning gap from pre-pandemic cohorts. And children’s mental health suffered when schools were shut down for months in 2020 and 2021. According to NWEA’s recent polling, students in U.S. schools experienced a myriad of negative impacts:

  • Children experienced learning issues during the initial shutdowns in Spring 2020. The first year of the pandemic created significant learning gaps that have not yet been resolved. Most K-12 students are struggling to catch up with pre-pandemic learning levels. According to a Fall, 2021 NWEA poll focused on third- through eighth-graders, math and reading levels were all lower than benchmarks. The shortfalls were greatest for Black and Hispanic students, as well as students in schools with high poverty rates.

  • Many children are experiencing mental health problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics, along with two other leading pediatric groups, has declared a public health emergency in children’s mental health, citing “dramatic increases in emergency department visits for all mental health emergencies.”

  • Suicide attempts among adolescents have risen. This alarming trend has been recorded most profoundly among adolescent girls. According to the CDC, the number of emergency room visits for suspected death by suicide attempts by girls, ages 12- to 17, has risen by 51% (data compared from early 2019 to early 2021).

  • Gun violence against children has increased. This outcome matches the broader national rise in overall crime. School shootings have also risen. The Washington Post counted 42 school shootings in 2021 in the U.S., the most shootings ever recorded, and up from 27 shootings in 2019.

These outcomes help explain why widespread school district closures ceased to be so prevalent in recent months. Shutdowns became more subtle, and localized. The Upshot recently conducted a poll, in collaboration with survey firm Dynata, of almost 150,000 parents around the country. Below are some findings from the January 2022 data:

  • More than half of American children missed at least three days of school in the month

  • About 25% of American children missed more than a week

  • 14 % of American students missed more than nine days

The bottom line: for tens of millions of American children, school still is not anywhere close to normal. Learning loss and social isolation continues to be a threat, for students’ academic and social emotional learning outcomes. Even “normal” aspects of a school day, such as trips to the cafeteria, school assemblies, field trips, and extracurricular activities have all been affected, with many being eliminated.

In 2020, the North Carolina Community Action Association (NCCAA), in conjunction with our agency partners, launched a pilot program focusing on rural North Carolina. The pilot was very successful, and NCCAA is working to share with other local CAAs later this year. For additional information, contact Elle Evans Peterson, NCCAA, Director of Health Policy and Equity.

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