PANDEMIC SCHOOL-CLOSURE COSTSCan America’s Students Recover What They Lost During the Pandemic?

By Alec MacGillis

Published 20 June 2023

Disastrous test scores increasingly show how steep a toll the COVID-19 era exacted on students, particularly minorities. Schools are grappling with how to catch up, and the experience of one city shows how intractable the obstacles are.

Angela Wright became the principal of Fairfield Court Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia, in the fall of 2020, but she didn’t meet her students until a year later. At the start of the pandemic, Richmond had moved all of its 22,000 students to remote learning. By the time they returned to the classroom, in September 2021, after every other school district in the state, it had been 18 months since they’d been inside a school building.

For Wright, the posting at Fairfield Court was the culmination of a steady rise: from instructional assistant to teacher to assistant principal to principal. When her father saw her first monthly paycheck as a teacher, he asked, “Is this for a week?” “He said, ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do?’” she recalled. “I said, ‘Yes.’ When you see kids light up, when you see that they get it, when you see kids who were tier three or lower rise to the top …”

Wright had previously been a principal in a rural school district, but after arriving in the Richmond system she settled for being an assistant principal for a few years. “Coming into an urban school district, I wanted to step back and take a look at their structure, their processes,” she said. Now she was eager to tackle the challenges facing the student body, which was almost entirely Black. Many of the students lived in an adjoining public-housing development, also called Fairfield Court. But Wright, in her first year, could offer guidance only at a remove. She dropped in on virtual classrooms, where students logged on from their beds or from crowded kitchen tables; often, they were not able to log on at all, because the concrete walls of their home interfered with a Wi-Fi signal. “Sometimes it was just, ‘Oh, it’s not working today,’” she told me.