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Focusing on “Learning Loss” Obscures How Much We’ve Truly Lost in the Pandemic

The pandemic’s deaths have been un-dealt with most profoundly by prioritizing saving the economy rather than lives.

Principal Alice Hom walks down a hallway followed by a student at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on April 11, 2022, in New York City.

Part of the Series

As the academic school year begins, and the COVID pandemic continues with new variants, there is much discussion about “learning loss,” typically referencing school-based achievement. Who is catching up? Who is behind? This preoccupation with timely learning is long-standing. Largely measured by standardized tests that have been researched and proven to be based in eugenics, a pseudoscience created to perpetuate racism, and that continually reinstate white supremacy, test scores and report cards are distractions from learning. A learning loss via those assessments is not a national crisis because schooling, since its formation in this settler nation, is one of the nation’s most efficient delivery systems for societal stratification.

However, there have been several learning losses during an ongoing pandemic. None of these losses are absolute, but they loom large until they are redressed.

What learning has been lost?

Timely political education has been sidelined during the pandemic. Although many have been quick to quote the closing paragraph of Arundhati Roy’s April 2020 essay on the pandemic, few have referenced the essay’s larger point and precise focus on the rise of totalitarianism. Focusing on India, Roy detailed how in the weeks prior to the pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted then-President Donald Trump, and in preparation for the visit, ramped up anti-Muslim raids in several districts. On March 24, 2020, Modi gave a nation of 1.3 billion people four hours’ notice of nationwide lockdown, and police brutally enforced the curfew. As in the U.S., those who had already been made most vulnerable by racial capitalism bore the brunt of sickness and death.

During this ongoing pandemic, global totalitarianism has created vulnerabilities for millions of people. For instance, the loneliness and related experiences of isolation and powerlessness proved to be the fertile ground for the rise of totalitarianism in China, India and the U.S., just as Hannah Arendt outlined in 1973. In New Orleans, Black people account for 53 percent of the city’s population, where wealth and poverty are neighbors. One year into the pandemic, Black people were 75 percent of the city’s total death toll. In Peru and El Salvador, more than 60 percent of the workforce is composed of informal laborers, such as street food vendors and women who made small trinkets for tourists. This already working poor population, who had to walk back to their villages, and as in India, suffered the most sickness and death from the virus.

Neither empire nor totalitarianism is new, but not critically analyzing and learning from these violent formations of power and their impact on already marginalized lives is a profound learning loss.

We Lost a Chance to Learn That Schools Don’t Equal Learning

Our society lost a chance to disambiguate learning from schooling. Being a good student doesn’t mean that learning is happening. It usually means that obedience is happening. We lost learning how freedom sounds from young children. As Carla Shalaby describes in her research, the “troublemakers” in school, the ones who fidget (which can and often is a form of self-soothing), who speak when they are supposed to be quiet and those who simply refuse — these children are crying for freedom. We’ve been conditioned to hear “disobedience.”

The closing of schools could have taught us that for some students, simply not being overwhelmed by considerable stimuli provided relief. Education could have learned that a dis/ability is always in dynamic with spaces, people and objects. The rise in Black homeschooling during the pandemic could have taught us that given an escape from the anti-Black racism in schooling, many Black families figured out ways to not return to that violent “normal.” Two years into the pandemic and counting, the number of Black homeschooling families has increased five-fold. However, the rise in Black homeschooling is a departure from the history and contemporary funding and legal support of homeschooling from Christian-based white organizations and exploitive corporations like Walmart.

We Lost a Chance to Tell the Truth About Uprisings

During the summer of 2020, people across the world witnessed and/or participated in global uprisings against state-sanctioned murders of Black people. And they took to the streets, as part of an intergenerational struggle for freedom. Dozens upon dozens of colleges and universities started initiatives and offered public but largely toothless mission statements in response to the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In fact, these responses were not focused on the state-sanctioned murders of Black people. They were largely a self-interested reaction to the global uprisings in summer 2020, to prevent further uprisings. Unintentionally, formal education taught (and people learned) about what moved the wealthiest of universities, as well as the limits of their actions.

When university leaders wrote emails in the summer of 2020 to their communities about the center/initiative/new chief diversity officer for equity in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, they likely were also working on announcements providing details about campuses reopening for the academic year. University staff didn’t need these emails because they were already back at work, PPE gear or not, or they had been laid off. Campus hourly workers who provided food service, cleaned buildings or performed as administrative assistants, largely working poor people of color, lost their jobs when campuses closed in Spring of 2020. This same population were the essential workers that had to risk infection to ready campuses to reopen before salaried, majority white faculty and administrators returned.

The Loss That Defies Any Metric: Grief

Perhaps most profoundly, this society has engaged in a mass displacement of grief, including learning how to grieve. This is a nation ruled by racial capitalism far more than either political party. Racial capitalism has no interest in humanizing deeply human experiences, including births, deaths and grieving. The U.S is infamous for having the cruelest policies for bereavement leave. The Fair Labor Standards Act is poignantly unfair, requiring exactly zero paid time off for bereavement. The nation officially recognized having lost 1 million lives to COVID in May 2022. An accurate accounting of life and loss of life remains elusive because of the numbers of incarcerated and undocumented people who are part of the U.S. population. Because this carceral society doesn’t treat life with care here, the number of lives counted is literally smaller.

We Can Learn to Choose Collective Care Over Racial Capitalism

The United States has never really found grieving useful. As a nation formed from the seizure of land and stolen labor, property owners built wealth through subjugation. From the perspective of racial capitalism, in which there can never be too big of a profit, grieving is, simply, time not working, time not making money for the company. During the first year of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised masking, social distancing and testing as the most powerful tools to combat the pandemic. In August 2022, with the BA.5 variant registering 500 COVID-related deaths daily and schools reopening mostly without hybrid options, the CDC announced that COVID is here to stay and that masking is advised for five days while a person is infected, but not mandatory.

As masking and other protective guidelines have fallen despite new variants, federal policies cue to the public that the pandemic, or taking precautions for it, is over. For a society that worships individualism, people rejoiced in dispensing with their K-95 masks, flooded airports with booked vacations and, of course, the pandemic has meant difficult, painful restrictions of social interaction, yet that loss pales in comparison to the massive death and grief that is muffled by flight attendants singing with passengers to lose their masks. As Ashon Crawley wrote, “there is so much un-dealt with grief,” referencing the laughter of a White House official taking the place of acknowledging the rising death toll due to AIDS in the early 1980s.

In the COVID pandemic, un-dealt with grief has surged alongside infections and deaths. While rampant homophobia and ignorance fueled ignoring grief and even mocking death in the 1980s, the refusal to acknowledge the still-growing numbers of COVID-linked deaths is related and distinct. The pandemic’s deaths have been un-dealt with via confusing and often contradictory policies, but most profoundly by prioritizing saving the economy rather than lives.

Compounded mass dislocation of grief also robs people of learning how to be with grief, how we might be changed by it. If provided the opportunity to grieve deeply, while reckoning with inequitable, population-level loss of life, there is an opportunity to become more humane and grow our collective political education. Millions have lost an opportunity to grieve thousands upon thousands of lives at the time when those lives were lost. While the basics of physics teach that time is not linear, there is something to be reckoned with what festers when an immediate grief is squelched. When the most “advanced” nation in the world created little to no structure to support grieving, including collective grief, it underscored its interest in returning to an already violent “normal” and quickly forgetting lost lives.

We Have Not Actually Lost Learning

No loss is simply an absence. School days not spent at school are not simply an erased space on the chalkboard. Losses are palpably present. The loss of over 1 million souls will continue to shape this society. Roy noted in the closing of her essay that no society goes unchanged by a pandemic. Surely, this is true for the willful displacement of grief for millions of people.

Where and how can a society put down the pressure to create, punish, and keep it moving? Social geographer and abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore states it plainly: Where life is precious, life is precious. Roy and Gilmore’s work and writings teach that being complacent with mass death and grief is not an option if our interest is freedom. Societies have the will to imagine anew, to take this still active opportunity to drop the weight of hollow narratives of individualism and to choose interrelated well-being.

Social media posts are full of pictures of young people dressed for their first days back at school, and stores are packed with largely maskless shoppers buying back-to-school gear. At the same time, the BA.5 variant is spreading like wildfire, and as science writer Ed Yong states, the nation’s leaders have normalized becoming infected, with masking mandates all but a thing of the past.

However, we still have a chance to correct this loss of ethics, this loss of humanity, this loss of collective demand for a public health infrastructure that openly counters centuries-long health inequities. Learning is always on offer.

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