Cain

Damon Cain

I’ve got news for you: Covid is not over. Won’t be for at least a generation and perhaps longer given our underwhelming and poorly informed response to a national public health pandemic. I mean, ivermectin? Really?

If you are looking for some indications about how long this terrible disease is going to be disrupting our lives, recent scientific studies specific to our youngest students are, to say the least, troubling.

Let’s recognize that the Omicron surge is in retreat, thankfully, at least here in the United States and West Virginia where new cases, active cases, hospitalizations and positive test rates have been falling through the floor boards the past several weeks, reaching low water marks not seen since last summer.

But then China – with a population of some 1.4 billion people – is facing its biggest outbreak right now since the first days of the pandemic two years ago. So there is that.

Also, this: The global death count hit 6 million earlier this week – or, put another way, right around 8,000 deaths a day, each and every day, on average, over the past two years. That’s a bunch of people who will never again grace us with their presence. It was a rough patch we hit, to say the least.

Just as we are emerging from the fog, there comes new research that shows Covid may have the capacity to change our brain. According to one study, Covid patients lost more gray matter – which processes information – and experienced more tissue damage than people who didn’t get Covid.

So there is that piece of dispiriting news, too. Sorry if I broke the mood.

But, most importantly, the kids. Our kids. An armful of new studies says that a third of children in the earliest grades are missing reading benchmarks, up significantly from before the pandemic.

And that, considering how long our schools were closed, should come to no one’s surprise.

We got a hint of it last fall in West Virginia when school officials announced scores in math, science and English language, grades 3-11, dropped during the pandemic.

In testing conducted in late spring of 2021, 40 percent of West Virginia students were proficient in English language arts, and that was down 6 percentage points from 2019. In science, 27 percent were proficient – that, too, was down 6 points. And in math the cumulative score was down 11 percentage points with a 28 percent proficiency rate.

Again, no surprise, here.

We were well aware of what was going on in the state, but now, national studies are honing in on reading – the most basic building block of all learning – and we seem to be in a bit of a crisis. Make no mistake, if our kids fail to become competent readers by the end of elementary school, well, poor readers are more likely to drop out of high school, earn less money as adults and become involved in the criminal justice system.

There is your sobering social trifecta and call to action all at once.

Instead of asking about whether kids have to wear masks in school, parents might ask if their school board and administrators have a plan to hire more teachers – and push legislators to carve out some extra funding, not just for teacher pay hikes, but for the infrastructure of education sorely lacking in our schools.

Instead of wondering what books to remove from the school library, maybe we should be putting more books into the hands of young learners and, yes, teach them the basics including the gold standard, phonics. 

And, maybe all parents, guardians and – in this state – grandmothers and foster parents should make it a nightly habit, if they haven’t already, of reading a story to their child before the lights are turned out. 

Entire communities could ramp up reading programs for after-school sessions and whole armies of volunteers could enlist in the effort.

Given the challenges of these past two years, our children were going to suffer – intellectually and socially.

It is our job, now, as the adults in the room, to make certain that does not create a lifelong handicap.

Because the window to opportunity is closing, we need to act expeditiously. Like now.

Go ahead. Pick up a book.

— J. Damon Cain is editor of The Register-Herald. To reach him, email dcain@register-herald.com.

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