On March 25, 2020, Idaho—the last holdout among states that had shutdowns—announced the closure of its public schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At that point, more than 50 million American students had been taken out of the classroom, launching the beginning of an unplanned (and completely unpreparedfor) experiment in remote learning on a mass scale.
As much of the nation went into full lockdown and classrooms gave way to Zoom, both academic standards and student engagement fell precipitously. Some students adjusted quickly to this seismic shift in reality. For other students, however, the transition was far more difficult, and brought with it complications—and consequences—that are still being felt.
“This is going to be something that we’ll have to watch as more research comes out. But it might be something that we’ll have to deal with on a more national or even international scale.”
SENIOR RESEARCH CONSULTANT
ACEC RESEARCH INSTITUTE
Brian T. is one of those students. He was in fifth grade when the COVID shutdowns began, and his mother says that the once-aspiring architect’s math education suffered tremendously during remote learning. “Kids can’t learn math remotely,” she says. “It was the self-study that made it so hard—compounded heavily by some teachers not knowing how to use tech like Zoom.” Even now, two years after the shutdowns, her now-middle schooler son is struggling to catch up in his math classes.
That sentiment was echoed by Matthew G.’s father. Matthew, who is described as a preternaturally bright kid, is now plagued by a slight hitch in his confidence that didn’t exist before COVID caused a shutdown at his school, shifting his scholastic frame of reference from his well-appointed school lab to his bedroom. An aspiring doctor since first grade, those ambitions have since been derailed—or at the very least hindered—by that lack of confidence.
“You can’t speak about the damage, the real damage, that has been done to a lot of kids without it snowballing into a political issue over the COVID response as a whole,” says Matthew’s father, himself a physician. “There are kids who absolutely thrived at home. But how do you teach advanced chem online? I sat in on several lessons and was buffaloed by how inadequate they were. That’s not an indictment of the teachers or even of the decision to shut down. It just is what it is.”
If fewer students pursue STEM areas of study, this will result in a smaller future applicant pool. For firms already experiencing workforce shortages, that’s a sobering thought. According to the ACEC Research Institute’s Engineering Business Sentiment 2023 Q1 report, nearly half of all firms reported turning down work because of workforce shortages.
One recruiter for a major manufacturing firm says that her organization has not experienced any significant hiring shortages. She pointed to her firm’s robust college internship program as one of the main drivers behind the quantity—and quality—of its applicant pool.
“Our internship program is very comprehensive,” she says. “By establishing those relationships early, we can make an impression on a future prospective full-time applicant before they’ve even graduated.”
She says it’s critical that firms build deep connections with college and university career centers. “That’s Recruitment 101, but you’d be surprised by how many organizations just don’t do it. We also recruit heavily at HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), which is important for our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals.”
Those DEI goals may be more difficult to meet in the coming years, as students from historically underserved areas were placed at an even greater disadvantage because of the shutdowns. Nearly every student in the U.S., regardless of their racial or economic background, from kindergarteners to high school seniors, had their education disrupted by the COVID shutdowns. The extent of that disruption—and the toll it has taken (and will take)—on college preparedness for STEM majors remains an unresolved question.
That’s unsettling, at least for industry executives. As part of the Engineering Business Sentiment 2023 Q1 report, firm executives were asked to weigh their concern that fewer students will choose STEM majors in college due to the long-term impact of COVID on their education. More than three-quarters of respondents indicated they were at least somewhat concerned, with one-quarter indicating they were “very concerned.”
ACEC Institute Senior Research Consultant Joe Bates, who oversaw and conducted the study, notes that statistics show that the education of younger children was more impacted by COVID and that they continue to be more affected by it. He also says the COVID shutdowns and remote learning were more difficult for students who were transitioning to a higher level of education at that time, such as those making the shift from prekindergarten to kindergarten, elementary to middle school, middle school to high school, or high school to college.
“How does this translate into our world?” Bates asked during a March webinar in which the study results were unveiled. “Is there going to be an impact on STEM majors? Are there going to be fewer people who are interested in STEM majors in college because of the impact of COVID?”
Bates notes the concern of industry executives for the state of STEM education and shared an anecdote from his personal life. “My own son had to take an extra year to get his footing back,” Bates says. “He was one of those who was transitioning from high school to college, and in fact he is now an aeronautics engineering major.” But, he continues, “It took him an extra year to get there.”
“This is going to be something that we’ll have to watch as more research comes out,” Bates concludes. “But it might be something that we’ll have to deal with on a more national or even international scale.”
Susan Firey is ACEC’s senior communications writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.