Denver Remote Learning Sites

Reyna Najera works on a laptop in a classroom in Denver's Newlon Elementary School on Aug. 25, 2020, which was one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students were participating in remote learning. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

More alarming data revealing Colorado children’s declining academic performance reaffirms what a colossal mistake it was to shut down our schools for so long amid the pandemic. With school districts abruptly ending classes in mid-spring 2020 and consigning students to “remote learning” online for much of the 2020-21 academic year, it’s no wonder test scores sank. It’s only a wonder, in hindsight, that we let it happen.

As The Gazette reported Monday, the latest state figures show reading scores for third, fifth and seventh graders fell between 1.2% and 3.9% per grade level from 2019 to 2021. More than 70% of students in fourth, sixth and seventh grades — in each respective grade — failed to meet or exceed expectations on the standardized math assessment, according to the state Department of Education. The data follows the department’s release last August of comparable data that illustrated how the shutdown of schools amid the pandemic caused significant learning losses and cut achievement since 2019 across all grades and subjects.

With the release of the new data, some have been quick to point out the number of Colorado students taking the test also has dropped — a troubling development in its own right — potentially skewing the results. One theory is the kids who opted out of the assessments that are used to measure achievement were those kids have done poorly on them in the past. Another theory holds it was the high performers who opted out.

Either way, though, a simple majority of students took the assessments and arguably form a representative sample. The upshot of which is a real downer.

Colorado’s already-lagging school performance overall — whether measured by standardized tests, graduation rates or other variables — was undermined further by keeping kids marooned at home for so long. They were forced to function in an academic bubble, a dubious learning environment for any child and, for most, one that is almost guaranteed to shut them down. Little direct interaction with teachers and other students was only compounded by the inevitable erosion of a child’s attention span — staring blankly day after day into a computer screen.

Lower-income households lacked access to electronic devices and internet connectivity. Some kids didn’t have the personal space needed to do schoolwork at home. Many children have parents whose jobs didn’t allow them to work at home during the pandemic and especially during the spring-into-summer 2020 lockdown. They couldn’t supervise their kids to ensure their engagement with online learning.

The damage extended well beyond academics. After schoolkids were subjected to a year of such alienation from normal education, Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a children’s mental health crisis in the spring of last year. Emergency rooms and crisis centers had seen a dramatic surge of children in serious mental and emotional distress.

Colorado’s kids are reaping what adults have sown through COVID overkill. As early as the summer of 2020, it was apparent children without special health conditions simply weren’t at high risk either of contracting COVID or of suffering serious symptoms from it. Of those who caught it, many weathered it like a common cold. Yet others never even knew they had it.

Yet, all languished at home for over a year, their mental, social and emotional growth smothered by hand-wringing adults for whom no limitation seemed far-reaching enough. Colorado likely will confront another crisis on the order of COVID. When it does, our hope is that we run our schools with greater forethought — and do less damage to our children.

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