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Studies Show COVID's Negative Impact on US Education and Life Expectancy

A third-grade student reads to the rest of her class at Beecher Hills Elementary School on Aug. 19, 2022, in Atlanta.
A third-grade student reads to the rest of her class at Beecher Hills Elementary School on Aug. 19, 2022, in Atlanta.

A pair of reports issued this week have combined to illustrate the deep and lasting impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the United States, documenting both declining educational outcomes for young students and a sharp decline in life expectancy for Americans in general.

A special assessment by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) focused on a nationally representative sample of 9-year-olds. It documented the sharpest ever drop in reading achievement between 2019, the year before the pandemic, and the early months of 2022. It also documented the first-ever decline in achievement in mathematics over the same time period.

A separate report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) documented a further decline in life expectancy in the U.S., first identified in 2021. According to the findings, the average American's life expectancy fell by nearly a year from 2020 to 2021, and by 2.7 years between 2019 and 2021.

As the country heads toward its third winter of the pandemic, the two studies demonstrate that even as Americans have, to some degree or another, returned to normal life despite the pandemic, its effects will continue to play out over the months and years to come.

Students struggling

Educators have been concerned about the impact that the transition to virtual learning had on students, as many schools were closed to in-person classes for much of 2020 and 2021. This prompted the National Center for Education Statistics to undertake its special assessment of 9-year-olds.

"We have all been concerned about the short- and longer-term impacts of the pandemic on our children," Peggy G. Carr, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said in a statement accompanying the findings.

"There's been much speculation about how shuttered schools and interrupted learning may have affected students' opportunities to learn," she said. "Our own data reveal the pandemic's toll on education in other ways, including increases in students seeking mental health services, absenteeism, school violence and disruption, cyberbullying and nationwide teacher and staff shortages."

The NAEP report looks at the change in academic proficiency overall, but also at the change within specific cohorts. It breaks the student population into those who score in the 90th percentile or above, as well as those at the 75th, 50th, 25th and 10th percentiles.

The study found declines in proficiency in both math and reading across all percentiles. However, they were greatest among those in the lowest percentiles. That means that the children in the 10th percentile not only showed lower proficiency than those in higher percentiles in 2022, but that they performed worse than other children in the 10th percentile in 2019.

"COVID-19 disruptions may have exacerbated many of the challenges we were already facing," Carr said. "We know that students who struggle the most have fallen further behind their peers."

Life expectancy drops

In 2019, the year prior to the pandemic, the life expectancy of the average American was 79 years. According to the data released by the CDC this week though, that had fallen to just a little more than 76 years by 2021, two years into the pandemic. It was a precipitous drop for the population in general, and was far worse for specific demographic groups.

The decline was most pronounced among Native Americans and Alaska Natives, whose already-low life expectancy of 71.8 years in 2019 had tumbled to 65.2 years by 2021. Black Americans' average life expectancy fell by four years, from 74.8 in 2019 to 70.8 in 2021.

Over the same time period, the life expectancy for Hispanic Americans fell from 81.9 to 77.7 years, while that of Asian Americans fell from 85.6 to 83.5. White Americans' life expectancy dropped from 78.8 years to 76.4 years.

Pandemic to blame

Noreen Goldman, the Hughes-Rogers professor of demography and public affairs at the Princeton University School of Public and International Affairs, told VOA that the "vast majority" of the decline is due to the pandemic.

She said that much of the blame lies with a disjointed and ineffective public health response to COVID-19, even after effective vaccines were available and successful mitigation techniques had been identified.

"That put the U.S. in this just horrific situation of inexcusable loss of life expectancy, which I think is embarrassing and disgraceful," she said.

However, Goldman noted that other factors were at play as well.

"The U.S. has had worse life expectancy than its peer countries — other high-income countries — for a very long time," she said. "Lower life expectancy comes along with higher rates of chronic disease, higher rates of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, the highest rate of obesity in the world."

In a study published by the Lancet early this year, researchers looked at the decline in life expectancy across 29 different countries between 2019 and 2020. The countries included most of Europe as well as Chile and the U.S. The study found that the decline in life expectancy in the U.S. during that period was greater than in any other country.