PBS Remains Willfully Ignorant on How Shuttering Schools During COVID Hurt Kids

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PBS NewsHour devoted two news stories to children struggling in schools after the COVID pandemic. But amid the handwringing there was no mention of how teachers unions are to blame for what turned out to be unnecessary school shutdowns, for over a year in some liberal cities, ruining activities and life events students had come to rely on.

Even worse, a story about delays in speech development among young children somehow skipped one enormous explanation – the mask mandates in school that targeted even two-year olds (America was a global outlier on forced masking of toddlers, pushed by activist groups like the American Association of Pediatrics).

Justified concerns about children’s inability to understand or read the facial expressions of an adult wearing a mask (particularly important when they’re learning to read) weren’t even brought up.

Communities Correspondent Gabrielle Hays explained Missouri’s numbers show that nearly a quarter of state students were chronically absent, mirroring the issue of “chronic absenteeism across the states and across the country.”

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When Bennett asked about “the barriers keeping students out of the classroom,” Hays avoided even mentioning school shutdowns, instead going down a liberal laundry list with an emphasis on “root causes” like lack of access to transportation or stable housing.

Anything to avoid the possibility keeping schools shuttered for a year might be affecting the rate of absenteeism today.

The January 7 edition of PBS News Weekend also managed to discuss American children being slow to develop language skills while avoiding the elephant in the room: mask mandates on toddlers.

Part of the harms of lockdown were the unnecessary and ruinous school shutdowns inspired by left-wing teachers unions, but PBS blamed society and Republicans instead.

Rebecca Alper of the University of Wisconsin also repeated the liberal mantra and avoided talking masks, which literally block mouths and make it harder to talk, instead blaming societal ills.

These bias by omission segments were brought to you in part by Consumer Cellular.

PBS NewsHour


Geoff Bennett: Chronic absenteeism is a problem for school districts and students across the country. While some states have seen modest gains, the situation has grown significantly worse since the pandemic.

Nearly 30 percent of students were chronically absent during the 2021 and 2022 school year. That’s according to the most recent federal data. And it’s defined as missing at least 10 percent of school days. It can have major consequences for student achievement and much more, and many districts are struggling with it, including Missouri.

Our communities correspondent, Gabrielle Hays, joins us now from St. Louis.

Gabby, it’s good to see you.

So give us a sense of the state of chronic absenteeism in Missouri and across the country, based on your reporting.

Gabrielle Hays: Yes, absolutely, Geoff.

Well, I think it’s important to understand that, here in Missouri, we’re kind of trailing national data. It’s not much better, but it hasn’t gone back to what it was. So, the most recent numbers that we have seen from our state report card point to nearly a quarter of our students across state of Missouri being absent.

Now, if we’re comparing this year to last year, as you have noted, what we’re seeing nationwide, we have seen very, very modest gains. But, again, the place of concern for our school administrators and our experts is that those numbers have not returned to what they were pre-pandemic. And that is something that is especially of concern, not just in Missouri, but nationwide, so much so that we have seen the White House come out on this, not just last year, but even today, emphasizing the issue of chronic absenteeism across the states and across the country.

Geoff Bennett: What did they say about the impact that absenteeism is having?

Gabrielle Hays: Yes. Well, today, we heard from the White House, from the education secretary, from governors across the country, and they note just how big this issue is of chronic absenteeism and what it means for students across the country. They really honed in on the fact that, how can our nation’s students learn if they’re not in the classroom, and emphasize the need for some side of — some sort of road map to help states navigate some accountability when it comes to that. But we heard especially from domestic policy adviser Neera Tanden on this.

Neera Tanden, White House Domestic Policy Adviser: Absenteeism can account for up to 27 percent of the test score declines in math we have seen and 45 percent of the test score declines in reading respectively. We know that from the Council of Economic Advisers and deep research they have done. The truth is, we simply cannot accept chronic absenteeism as the new normal.

Gabrielle Hays: Now, I want to emphasize something that I heard not just from school administrators, not just from the state, and not just from the White House, but from researchers that have emphasized this as well, are these long, far-reaching impacts of chronic absenteeism and what that can mean to students. And they have linked this not only to things like its effects on mental health, but also the ability of a person to earn a living long term.

Geoff Bennett: So, what are the barriers keeping students out of the classroom then?

Gabrielle Hays: That’s a really good question. I think one thing that I — that’s imperative to point out that administrators have pointed out to me and experts is that we’re talking about barriers that young people faced even before the pandemic that the pandemic maybe made even worse, right? Attendance Works, which is a national organization that works at this issue, caused them root causes. So we’re talking about anything from child abuse, to not having access to transportation, to not having access to stable housing. So, if you add a global pandemic to all of these root causes, it makes for a very rough scenario for a lot of our young people who are not showing up to school. Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, spoke to me about this and of the importance of understanding what these barriers are.

Hedy Chang, Executive Director, Attendance Works: A major challenge in our work on — around attendance is that people’s reaction to when kids miss school, often, in this country, we think it’s because a kid and family doesn’t care. This is not about whether you care or not. This is about whether you face barriers or challenges and issues coming to school.

Gabrielle Hays: This is a big thing that Chang stressed to me, that, in order to really take a look at this issue, it has to go beyond the numbers. The numbers are a good start, but it has to go beyond the numbers and misconceptions about why young people aren’t at school.

Geoff Bennett: So, how are schools handling this? And what do experts say needs to be done?

Gabrielle Hays: Yes, well, I think, on one hand, school districts have told me they’re really just trying to communicate and learn as best they can why students aren’t showing up, so they can help them. But Chang really emphasized to me that there needs to be more data. There needs to be more investigation into what this looks like and why it looks like it, so that, once we have all of the numbers to know how far this goes, that we can work together to solve it and really attack this as a case-by-case basis, because every student is different and every story is different.


PBS NewsHour


John Yang:

 Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of young children who have been slow to develop language skills. Pediatric speech delays more than doubled for children aged 12 and younger. PBS Wisconsin reporter Zac Schultz spent time with students and teachers to find out what’s behind this increase and whether schools have the resources to help children speak up.

Zac Schultz: The children in this early Head Start classroom are your typical two to three year olds. But they were born during the COVID-19 pandemic and some are at risk of developing a speech delay.

Nichole Spooner, Director, Comprehensive Services, Next Door Foundation: I believe we are definitely in a dire state right now.

Zac Schultz: Nichole Spooner is the director of comprehensive services at Next Door Foundation, a headstart program in Milwaukee. She says young children were severely impacted by the lockdown.

Nichole Spooner: They were facing isolation, stress with their families, trauma, things of that nature. And so they’re coming in now with really some challenging behaviors, speech delays, things of that nature. I think we’re up about 10 percent right now and children who have speech delays diagnosed.

Zac Schultz: Across the state, it’s the same story.

Megan Bohlken, Speech Language Pathologist: There’s just too many kids for me to fit in.

Zac Schultz: Megan Bohlken is one of four full time speech language pathologists at Platteville School District in southern Wisconsin. Each of their case loads is maxed out. And once a student is diagnosed with a speech delay, federal and state law mandates the district provide the services, whether they have the funding or not.

Megan Bohlken: Are definitely kids who will just hand you stuff and expect that you know what they want to do with it and not say anything to you

Rebecca Alper, University of Wisconsin at Madison: Early language skills are one of the best predictors of academic social vocational outcomes.

Zac Schultz: Rebecca Alper is an assistant professor and researcher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison studying early The Language and Literacy Intervention.

Rebecca Alper: We’re really just kind of trying to get a sense for where the child’s language levels are.

Zac Schultz: She says the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted a lot of existing health disparities along the lines of race, income, or even where someone lives and young children were no different.

Rebecca Alper: It’s very hard to focus on early language intervention when you’re experiencing housing insecurity, food insecurity, all of those sorts of things.

Zac Schultz: Alper’s team is studying how best to support caregivers of young children since language development starts at birth.

Rebecca Alper: What would be the most supportive long term is to really help support early identification and early intervention? Because the earlier we can intervene, the better the long term prognosis are.

Woman: I have one for everybody. Peyton, would you like to put this on?

Zac Schultz: Back at Next Door in Milwaukee, they use a system called LENA to help identify kids with possible speech delay.

Shakeda Caldwell, Teacher: These events are going to record the amount of interactions that we’re having with each other, it’s going to tell us how often we talk to each other because talking is very important.

Woman: It’s like a superhero this time.

Zac Schultz: Shakeda Caldwell is the lead teacher in this classroom, and convinces the kids to wear vests that contain a small device that monitors and counts interactions between kids and teachers.

Shakeda Caldwell: Well guess what is going to do, it’s going to help you this talk more, and it’s going to help your teachers talk to you more. And we’re going to build lots of vocabulary together.

Tonya Hameister, Director of Education Services, Next Door: They are actually recording the frequency of the interactions between the teachers and the children.

Zac Schultz: Tonya Hameister is the Director of Education Services at Next Door. She says from the LENA device, they download the data, which creates a chart to show the number of times a student and teacher talk to each other, that lets the teachers know which students need more attention.

Shakeda Caldwell: So if I have that child who scored lower who wasn’t having many interactions, then I will plan to, okay, I’m going to have a one on one with this child. Maybe I’m going to read more books with him. I want him to name I’m going to ask him what does he see in the book so I can get those words out of hand.

Zac Schultz: Hameister says LENA started as a research program. But now next door has adopted it for all early Head Start classrooms.

Tonya Hameister: We saw an increase, especially in the children that were not as verbal that is expressive. We saw a pretty significant increase in the amount of interactions. So the teachers were doing very targeted interactions with children and trying to increase that opportunity for them to be expressive.

Zac Schultz: Hameister says Next Door is fortunate enough to have a lot of community support. But she worries about schools that are dealing with a budget crunch and a surge in speech referrals.

In the last state budget, Governor Tony Evers proposed using the budget surplus to put an extra billion dollars into special education funding, Republicans in the legislature only allotted an extra 107 million statewide over the next two years, just a 2 percent increase.

Tonya Hameister: It’s a challenge. It is a huge challenge. We know a lot of our systems are resource depleted, and they’re tired.

Zac Schultz: Megan Bohlken says burnout in her industry is a real concern. And while they’re doing okay right now, next February, they start screenings for the 4k students. The next wave of speech delays is waiting to be identified.

Megan Bohlken: Those referrals keep coming as those kids are evaluated. And if they qualify, getting them added onto my schedule, that’s when it’s going to start to be okay, now I feel like I’m drowning. Now, what are we going to do.

Zac Schultz: For PBS News Weekend, I’m Zac Schultz in Platteville, Wisconsin.

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