It will likely be decades before we fully grasp the full impact of the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and how unevenly they have been distributed across our society. We had a pretty good idea from the start, however, that there would be a price to pay in terms of early childhood development, as an entire generation of American children missed out on seminal aspects of stimulation and interaction. Research data on several key metrics now paints a clearer picture of the impact of societal disruption, and it looks even worse than imagined.
Many factors have impeded the ability of preschoolers to experience the environments most conducive to optimal development, and they vary widely. Most obvious was restricted access to in-person learning environments like preschool. While children vary widely in their ability to excel in a virtual classroom environment, we’ve learned that the challenges of virtual learning increase as you move down the age scale. In addition to compromised teaching, social interaction with other children of the same age has long been identified as a key factor in learning everything from language to social cues that help them navigate a world of more more complicated.
Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University recently used a large ongoing study of child neurodevelopment to examine overall childhood cognitive scores in 2020 and 2021 compared to the previous decade (2011-2019) . Researchers have found that children born during the pandemic show reduced gross verbal, motor and cognitive performance compared to children born before COVID-19. In the same previous decade, the average IQ score for children between three months and three years old was around 100. The children in the study, however, only scored an average of 78. The negative impacts were mostly seen in men and those in lower socioeconomic strata. .
COVID disease was excluded, as mothers or children with a history of COVID-19 were excluded from the analysis. Other factors, such as the amount of natal stress experienced by the mother while carrying the child, stress and trauma at home associated with the pandemic, and overburdened parents and caregivers not being able to lead enough stimulation towards the children during this key phase are envisaged. A precipitous drop in play time with other children during the pandemic, when it was much harder to visit parks and arrange play dates, is also thought to be a factor.
As you move up the age scale, where grade-level reading ability has proven to be a reliable predictor of future school readiness, there is more bad news. School districts across the United States are seeing a drop in the number of third-grade students in grade-level reading while, worldwide, the UN reports that an additional 100 million children have not met the benchmarks for basic reading skills due to the pandemic. And while the national high school graduation rate hit an all-time high of 85.8% in 2019, around 3 million students dropped out of school altogether when the pandemic led to a transition to virtual learning.
The one consistent factor in all of these measures is that ills are disproportionately suffered by those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. The poorer the family you come from, the more likely you are to experience any of the negative impacts I mentioned. Given that our wealth inequality has also increased dramatically during the pandemic, reaching levels that even exceed those our nation experienced at the start of the Great Depression, COVID may very well end up doing more to negatively reshape American society. than any event in our nation’s history. .
Whether we will muster the will to make the kind of investments that will meaningfully resolve this crisis in the years to come remains to be seen, but I would be lying if I said I was hopeful given how we’ve been unable to make any sense addressing anything that doesn’t have a deep-pocketed special interest lobbying on its behalf. This does not bode well for our future, however. There was good reason to believe that we were living in the decline of the American empire before COVID. A lost generation of pandemic children will only hasten our downfall.