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Tom Barkin

Will COVID-19 Scar Our Students?

Tom Barkin
Jan. 14, 2021

Tom Barkin

President, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

The Richmond Fed is hosting a series of District Dialogues on educational disparities and COVID-19. Visit the event page to learn more and register. 

Since last March, when schools started shutting down and transitioning to remote learning, we’ve been worried about students losing touch with the educational system.1 Those concerns now appear to have been well founded. While we don’t yet have data at the national level, most states have reported declining public school enrollment in the fall of 2020. In addition, students who are enrolled may be less engaged, and we’ve also seen a decline in the number of students making the important jump from high school to college: The pipeline to higher education, and thus to the workforce, is leaking.

Here in Virginia, for example, 45,000 fewer students were enrolled in public school than in the fall of 2019, a 3.5 percent drop. (Declines have been similar in other states in our District.) More than 18,000 of those students—40 percent—would have been in pre-K or kindergarten. This could reflect parents opting for other schooling options, such as private school or home school, or deciding to delay kindergarten enrollment for a year. But it may be that some kids are missing out on a necessary year of school altogether. This decline in our youngest students is especially concerning, as we know from a large body of research that early learning is critical to lay the foundation for education later in life.2 And in Virginia, public pre-K is available to children from low-income families or to children who have special needs—the same children who may have difficulty accessing other schooling options.

Other data also suggest that students are less engaged in learning than they were prior to the pandemic, particularly low-income students. Economists at Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights have been tracking students’ participation in a widely used online math course that is typically paired with classroom instruction. Nationwide, between January and December 2020, this participation declined 20 percent for low-income students compared to just 2 percent for high-income students. 3

In a recent national survey, teachers and educators from pre-K to 12th grade reported that they expect 16 percent of their students to receive failing grades at the end of this semester, compared to 9 percent a year ago. There’s a large gap in expectations according to income—21 percent of students in high-poverty schools were expected to fail, versus 8 percent in lower-poverty schools.4

These expectations have already become reality in Chesterfield County, just outside Richmond. In 2020, more than 17 percent of the county’s high school students, and 12 percent of middle school students, failed at least two courses. In 2019, the shares were 9.2 percent and 4.8 percent.5

The increase in students feeling disengaged from school could be contributing to the decline in students enrolling in college. Last fall, the number of students who transitioned directly from high school to college fell 22 percent compared to the fall of 2019—and once again, the decline has disproportionately been among students from lower-income backgrounds. At low-income and high-poverty schools, around 30 percent fewer students went to college right after high school graduation, compared to about 17 percent fewer students from high-income and low-poverty schools.6

While enrollment declined across all institution types, community college enrollment has been hit particularly hard. Direct-from-high-school enrollment fell more than 30 percent at community colleges, compared to 14 percent at public four-year colleges.  And community college enrollment by students of all ages fell 10 percent, compared to 2.5 percent for colleges overall. The drop has been especially large in fields where we hear from employers that they’re having trouble finding workers, such as precision manufacturing and the skilled construction trades. This is particularly troubling because community colleges are the first college experience for many low-income students, and can be a stepping stone to a four-year degree—and the higher earnings that come with it. Community colleges also provide the skills people need to land good jobs, including certificate programs that can deliver new skills in a relatively short period of time.7

Some of these students may eventually enroll—but research suggests that if students don’t start college right out of high school, they are much less likely to ever go back.  It is crucial that we not lose focus on the impact this pandemic is having—and will continue to have—on our nation’s students.

Will that impact continue to fall most heavily on students from disadvantaged backgrounds—and if yes, what are the long-term consequences? What are the downstream effects for our future workforce and economy? And what will be the implications of looming state budget deficits on already-stretched education budgets?8 What solutions can shore up our post-COVID pipeline to the workforce? 

To address some of these questions, the Richmond Fed is hosting a series of six conversations with economists, educators and policymakers about the challenges facing students and schools, and innovative solutions —inside the classroom, outside the classroom and in transition to the workforce. The first event is February 18. Please register to join the conversation.


Santiago Pinto and John Bailey Jones, “The Long-Term Effects of Educational Disruptions,” Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, May 22, 2020.


Tom Barkin, “Early Childhood Education: Now More Than Ever,” Speech at the 7th Annual Executive Briefing on the Economics of Early Childhood, Oct. 13, 2020.


Before the pandemic, survey respondents reported that 11 percent of students failed in high-poverty districts and 4 percent in low-poverty districts. See Holly Kurtz, “Vaccine Requirements, Failing Grades, Teacher Evaluations: Our Latest Survey Results,” Education Week, Dec. 22, 2020.


National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “High School Benchmarks: 2020,” Dec. 10, 2020.


John Mullin and Santiago Pinto, “State and Local Governments: Economic Shocks and Fiscal Challenges,Regional Matters, Oct. 20, 2020.

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