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New report shows Kansas and Missouri kids are still recovering from the pandemic

A large first grade class heads outdoors on May 7 at George Melcher Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri. The school has seen rapid enrollment growth this year.
Zach Bauman
The Beacon Kansas City
A first grade class heads outdoors at George Melcher Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri.

Fewer children in Missouri and Kansas live in high-poverty areas, but students continue to grapple with math and reading after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools, according to the latest Kids Count report

The annual child wellness report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranks states on kids’ economic well-being, education, health, and family and community. Kansas ranked 19 overall, and Missouri ranked 32 — both a couple places below last year.

Ryan Reza, data and policy analyst for Kansas Action for Children, said states across the country improved in every measure of how families are doing since 2019.

In 2022, fewer children in Missouri and Kansas lived in single-parent families and in families headed by someone without a high school diploma. Fewer people had children as teenagers, as well.

“We want to see that trend continue in the years moving away from the pandemic, and to make sure that we don't see any lasting influence of the pandemic — whether that's pandemic-era support programs’ decline, or getting off the books or families having their livelihoods altered,” Reza said.

Fewer children in Kansas and the same percentage in Missouri lived in poverty since before the pandemic began. Kansas Action for Children said pandemic-era support programs like the child tax credit and easier access to health care helped.

But much of that aid has since expired, and Reza said indicators that directly influence poverty, like food insecurity, are heading in the wrong direction and may cause declines in future reports.

Tracy Greever-Rice, project director for the Missouri Kids Count, said families may still feel burdened, even as they make more money, because they have fewer public resources.

In Missouri, 22% of children live in households where families spend more than a third of their income on housing.

“If you have a third of your working time spent just covering those basics, what are you not able to do for your kids that you'd really like to be doing?” Greever-Rice said.

Rising teen and child mortality rates

Missouri ranks 40th in the country for children’s health. Children weigh less at birth than they did in 2019, and mortality rates for children and teens rose. Kansas ranks 19th for health, but saw the same patterns.

Child and teen mortality rates in Kansas went up to 35 deaths per 100,000 in 2022, compared to 28 in 2019. Missouri’s rate jumped to 41 deaths, compared to 32 in 2019.

Reza said the report’s mortality rate numbers differ from the Kansas Child Death Review Board’s data because Kids Count includes all child deaths in the state.

The Kansas Child Death Review Board’s latest report found that the overall death rate for teens and children hit a record low in 2021 and the rate of deaths from natural causes is also trending downward.

The death rate because of homicide in Kansas was stable from 2017 to 2020 but increased to 32 child homicides in 2021, compared to 22 in 2020. The report found the death rate because of suicide is also trending downwards since a peak in 2018, but still increased in 2021.

The Kansas report also found drug-related deaths increased significantly in the past two years. Twenty children died from fentanyl overdoses in 2020 and 2021. No children died from the opioid in 2017, 2018 or 2019.

In Missouri, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for children and teens from ages 10-17, according to Kids Count, and 43 children died from fentanyl in 2020.

Greever-Rice said the COVID pandemic has had lasting impacts on children’s mental health.

“Children in that age cohort were really negatively impacted by the COVID pandemic in terms of isolation, learning new tools and routes for both education as well as socializing and communication with each other,” Greever-Rice said.

Chronic absenteeism and adverse childhood experiences

The Annie E. Casey Foundation also looked at the increase in chronic absenteeism and high rates of adverse childhood experiences since the pandemic began.

Chronic absenteeism is typically measured as missing more than 10% of school days. In the 2021-22 school year, 27% of students in Kansas and 20% of students in Missouri weren’t regularly at school.

Adverse childhood experiences are traumatic events that affect children in the long term — like economic hardship, experiencing domestic or community violence, living with someone who has a mental illness or substance use problem or facing discrimination based on race or ethnicity.

In Kansas, 40% of children, and in Missouri, 43% experienced one or more adverse childhood experience.

The report argues that both measures make it harder for children to show up ready to learn in the classroom — if they’re there at all — which contributed to declining academic performance in recent years.

Students in Missouri and Kansas are still struggling to reach proficiency in reading and math, according to the Kids Count data. In Missouri, 76% of eighth graders were not proficient in math and 70% of fourth graders were not proficient in reading.

In Missouri, 76% of eighth graders were not proficient in math and 70% of fourth graders were not proficient in reading.

Adrienne Olejnik, vice president of Kansas Action for Children, said her organization wants more support for families, like a state-level child-tax credit that lets families put money toward child care, housing, groceries or whatever they need.

“We start to see households become more financially insecure, or not being able to put food on the table for every meal,” Olejnik. “It's more likely that children will start to experience high levels of absenteeism and adverse childhood experiences, and it gets into this wicked cycle that then affects their ability to learn.”

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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