After a day full of math and reading lessons, third grader Ashley Soto struggles to concentrate during a writing exercise. She’s supposed to be crafting an essay on whether schools should serve chocolate milk, but instead she wanders around the classroom. “My brain is about to explode!” she exclaims. 

Across the country, fourth grade teacher Rodney LaFleur looks for a student to answer a math question. He reaches into a jar filled with popsicle sticks, each inked with the name of one of his students. The first student’s name he draws is absent. So is the second. And the third.

Principal Jasibi Crews goes through her email: She has seven absent employees and too few substitutes to fill in. She texts a plea to a group chat – are any coaches or support staff available to fill in? Dozens of children could be without teachers today if she doesn’t come up with a plan. 

These recent moments from public schools thousands of miles apart reveal a troubling fact confronting educators, parents and students: More than three years after the COVID outbreak began, some children are thriving but many others remain severely behind. This reality means recovering from COVID could be more costly, time-consuming and difficult than they anticipated, leaving a generation of young people struggling to catch up.

This isn’t what lawmakers and education leaders had envisioned. Many were hopeful the 2022-23 school year would be the one when things would return to normal – or, at least, closer to what they were like pre-pandemic. Schools were brimming with money to test new ways to accelerate learning and hire more staff. The new hires and the educators who stuck things out were determined to help kids make progress. There was no longer a health emergency.

USA TODAY education reporters spent six months observing elementary-school students, teachers and principals at four public schools in California and Virginia and asked them to keep journals to better understand the post-COVID education crisis and recovery. Districts in California and Virginia stayed remote for longer than those in many other states. Virginia also had some of the sharpest declines in test scores in the country. 

What the reporters observed and data confirms: Kids are missing more class time than before the pandemic because parents’ attitudes about school have changed. Educators encountered students who are severely behind in reading and math yet can hardly sit still after three years of shape-shifting school days. School administrators discovered that a deluge of cash doesn’t go very far in filling jobs too few people are willing to do. Staff shortages and experiments with new curriculum – sometimes intended to cram several years of lessons into one – collided with the everyday problems of many public schools: children and families without enough food or a consistent, safe home life. 

To tell this story, USA TODAY reporters cataloged moments they witnessed while visiting schools at different hours and days. What follows is a reconstructed timeline based on reporting that began last fall and an approximation of the challenges schools and students face on any given day. …

Read the full project at