Learning gap widens among Tenn. kids

Nationwide, more kids tell researchers they are struggling with loneliness and isolation one year into the pandemic. (photo courtesy of Adobe Stock)

Tennessee kids have lost months of learning to the pandemic, and their advocates are now trying to make up for lost time.

A new report from the nonprofit group Save the Children finds more than half of all families say their children are spending less time on learning activities compared to a typical school day before COVID-19.

Experts say dropout rates will likely increase, and could result in one million more people not earning high-school diplomas.

Chapple Osborne-Arnold, Tennessee deputy director for Save the Children, said she initially thought online learning would help rural kids, but quickly realized that wasn’t the case.

“Then we were faced with the reality that that wasn’t going to happen. They didn’t even have access to internet or devices or any of those tools,” Osborne-Arnold said. “And so, we were able to put together a lot of really high-quality learning kits. We delivered these, hand-delivered them, to all of the families and children in the area.”

She added very young children had even fewer options, as high-quality child care, pre-K and Head Start programs were already in short supply statewide.

The report said last year child-care providers faced crippling revenue shortages from low enrollment and new safety requirements. By April 2020, 60% of child-care providers across the nation had closed their doors.

Osborne-Arnold emphasized Save the Children is also trying to combat the learning loss by focusing on summer programs.

“We’re really trying to double up our efforts this year and do our Kindergarten readiness programs this summer,” Osborne-Arnold said. “We’ve almost tripled the amount of programs that we did from last summer to this summer. We’re going to try to hold those in person and really get those kids in there that have struggled the most.”

The report also highlights child COVID-19 cases, ranking Tennessee in the top three states, along with North Dakota and South Dakota, for the number of children who have contracted the virus.

Osborne-Arnold pointed out child infections have created obstacles, for both schools and families.

“We’ve seen the COVID cases hit in waves, and kids being quarantined, which makes it so difficult on parents and the school system,” Osborne-Arnold said.

Children in these highest-rate states are at least five times as likely to test positive for COVID than those in the lowest-rate states. At least 211 children died from COVID in 2020, according to the report.