The pandemic has become an educational crisis, too, just as experts feared: In New Jersey, the majority of students have fallen behind, with even worse numbers among lower income kids.

The question now is, what’s our plan to ensure that the $2.8 billion in federal dollars that’s going directly to our schools for learning loss isn’t wasted, and gets spent on the kids who need it most?

The state is supposed to be tracking how this money is used. But representatives from Gov. Phil Murphy’s state Department of Education didn’t show up to a recent Legislative meeting to discuss it.

So we are discussing it now with Patricia Morgan, executive director of the education policy watchdog group JerseyCAN and a former assistant commissioner at the state Department of Education. Below is a transcript of her conversation with Star-Ledger Deputy Editorial Page Editor Julie O’Connor, edited for brevity.

Q. Just how much damage did the pandemic do?

A. What we know from the state’s “Start Strong” assessments, given this year to students in grades 4 through 10, is that a majority of students now need “some support” or “strong support” in math or English language arts. And we know from JerseyCAN’s study last year that only 1 in 4 students are projected to be on grade level in math, and only 1 in 3 in English/Language arts. That’s a significant decrease from pre-pandemic levels. And the achievement gap is growing: Low-income students, students of color, and students with special needs are not faring as well because of the shutdowns related to covid.

Q. Younger kids are having the biggest difficulties, right?

A. Yes. Those elementary years – kindergarten through second grade – are about learning to read and introducing students to school and building critical foundation blocks for future learning. Third grade is when you make that transition from learning to read, to reading to learn. And it’s not just academics we need to focus on – we need to make sure students have the stamina and focus to learn after three school years of interrupted learning.

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