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As college campuses have lost their masks and regained their students, a more insidious mark of the pandemic remains. Waves of high school graduates who lost essential high school years to Zoom are arriving on campus.
Let’s be clear: Learning loss from Covid-19 is a national catastrophe whose effects will be with us for decades. Math and reading scores for fourth graders have dropped by record amounts, reversing two decades of progress. Gaps in education compound over time; unprepared fourth graders become worse-prepared high schoolers who are less likely to go to college, or even to graduate at all.
These effects weren’t felt equally. Minority and low-income students, already at a structural disadvantage, showed the worst signs of educational loss, potentially depressing lifetime earnings by tens of thousands of dollars and contributing to greater levels of economic and racial inequality.
We’re already seeing the results of these learning gaps in higher education. College enrollment has dropped sharply, as have completion rates. Community colleges in particular have struggled to maintain enrollment.
Though Harvard will feel the learning loss crisis less acutely, our university shouldn’t let its guard down. Harvard should provide proactive support for incoming students who may have effectively lost a portion of their high school education.
To start, the University could expand its free peer tutoring program to contend with what will likely be increased demand. We reiterate our calls to improve Harvard’s academic advising with newfound urgency. We ask the University to show flexibility in dealing with a problem of uncertain size and scope. And with more of our peers coming to campus less sure of their ability to succeed in a new environment, we once again ask for greater ease of access to mental health services.
Of course, Harvard’s neighbors will suffer far more from this crisis. We can use our vast resources to help soften that blow. Fully funding the PILOT program (a hypothetical first for our university) through which Harvard subsidizes city programs to make up for its substantial tax-exempt holdings would be a good start. Harvard has already shown a laudable commitment to community education with its Allston Ed Portal, connecting local students to Harvard mentors. Building on this model, Harvard can continue to provide needed educational resources to its community.
And yet, for all its vast resources, Harvard can only marginally alleviate the crisis of learning loss through direct assistance. The problem is national in scope, and most of its victims won’t even be in Cambridge, let alone at Harvard.
Systematic solutions will have to bolster the public schools that enroll roughly 90 percent of American students. We need large-scale investment in improving educational quality and equality across the country; Harvard and other elite schools should leverage their institutional power to lobby for these policy changes.
Harvard was a leader in combating the pandemic proper. Now, we must lead in healing the scars it's left behind. Harvard can help save a generation from learning loss, and it has a duty to try.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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