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The COVID pandemic took a huge toll on our kids, affecting everything from emotional stability to physical health to academic performance.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation released its 2024 KIDS COUNT® Data Book, analyzing how kids are faring in post-pandemic America. New Jersey ranked 6th according to the 50-state report. There are 16 key indicators of child well-being in four domains: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community factors.

Even though NJ scored fairly high on the list, there’s reason for concern since the report—whose most recent data is from the 2021-22 school year—shows that New Jersey families continue to face economic insecurity, ranking 26th in economic well-being after placing 29th on the list last year. More than one-third (35 percent) of New Jersey’s children live in households spending more than their fair share on housing costs.

Another cause for concern: 62 percent of fourth graders and 67 percent of eighth graders are scoring below proficient in reading levels in the 2022 National Assessment for Educational Progress.

Findings also show that about one-third of New Jersey students experienced one or more adverse childhood experiences (ACES). These disparities affect students of color, kids in immigrant families and children from low-income families or who are attending low-income schools.

New Jersey also is not taking advantage of its money: 49 percent of the third and largest round of funding, Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER III), remained unspent in New Jersey as of January. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, New Jersey spent 74 percent of its ESSER funding as of March 31. The deadline to allocate this funding is September 30 or else the money will be gone.

On a positive note, the state ranks second for lowest chronic absenteeism at 17 percent, following Idaho at 4 percent. Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ) helped spearhead legislation in 2018 that required every district with a chronic absenteeism rate of 10 percent or higher to develop a corrective action plan to improve attendance.

The KIDS COUNT Data Book has been published for 35 years, focusing on students’ reading and math skills, which only got worse because of the learning loss brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Drops in learning from 2019 to 2022 actually amount to decades of lost progress.

The overall data shows plunging test scores and surging absenteeism in public schools throughout the country, with only 1 in 3 children meeting reading standards in fourth grade, 1 in 4 eighth graders proficient in math, and 30% of students chronically absent. The data points to persistent poverty decreasing a student’s chance to succeed, and any improvements were wiped away during the pandemic.

It’s important to note that this is not solely because of the past four years. The Casey Foundation says that U.S. scores in reading and math have barely budged in decades. Students who don’t advance beyond lower levels of math are more likely to be unemployed after high school. This can also translate into harming the nation’s economy as students eventually join the workforce. One analysis shows that the drop in math scores between 2019 and 2022 will reduce lifetime earnings by 1.6% for 48 million pandemic-era students, for a total of $900 billion in lost income.

Compared with other comparable countries in the world, the U.S. is not equipping our children with the high-level reading, math and digital problem-solving skills needed for a highly competitive global economy, The Casey Foundation says.

The report is not just doom-and-gloom. The Casey Foundation does make recommendations for improvement, such as ensuring access to low- or no-cost meals; providing access to reliable internet connections; finding a place to study; spending time with friends, teachers and counselors; expanding access to in-person tutoring; and increasing mental health support.

In New Jersey, specifically, Gov. Phil Murphy expanded access to free school meals to more than 50,000 additional New Jersey students. The Working Class Families Anti-Hunger Act extends eligibility to families earning up to $67,200 a year, or 224 percent of the federal poverty level.

From an administrative level, the foundation urges districts to spend their allocated pandemic relief funding, and to track attendance data to properly address absenteeism rates. The report says that instead of punishing parents or kids for missing school days, they need to understand why days are being missed and go from there.

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