On March 13, Keller, a second grader at Vermont’s Hinesburg Elementary, came home from school and didn’t return for six months. Like 20 million other students across the United States, Keller, with no preparation or warning, abruptly shifted to online learning.

Two hundred miles south of Hinesburg, Matt was a ninth grader when COVID-19 struck in Boston. Like Keller, he left school in mid-March and has not been back since. Thus began the most disruptive period in the history of American education.

Pick Boston, Hinesburg, or any other city or small town, and the story’s the same: Most students are learning less, and 10 percent of America’s K-12-aged students no longer attend class, either in-person or virtual.

Keller was one of the lucky ones. Unlike Matt and too many other children, he had a quiet place to work, parents able to help him, and reliable internet service.

The lost generation

Many other kids weren’t so lucky. Recent studies tell a troubling story about what’s happening with our children. A McKinsey report predicts that because of the pandemic’s disruption to America’s schools, students will lose 8-12 months of math, and the forecast for reading loss isn’t much better.

CFES, the nonprofit organization I lead, sees these challenges up close every day. Over the last 30 years, we’ve partnered with 1,500 schools and 560 colleges to help 100,00 kids in 42 states attain college degrees, so we have a unique vantage point for viewing America’s education system and the implications of recent trends.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only served to widen the gaps we’ve long observed – specifically gaps in achievement between students whose parents have the knowledge, ability, and will to support them on their educational journeys and students whose parents, however loving, are unable or unwilling to do so.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has triggered a sea change in education at all levels. The K-16 education sector will never return to what it was in February 2020. Online learning, to varying degrees, is here to stay in the K-12 classroom.

And while all levels of schooling have been impacted by the pandemic, postsecondary education has been hit especially hard. The number of students enrolled in higher education is down four percent this year over last, while first-year student enrollment has declined by 16 percent.

Community colleges – long-recognized as a gateway to higher education, especially for first-generation college students – have been especially hard hit, with enrollments down 23 percent.

These are troubling trends because higher education remains the best ticket to opportunity. Those with a college degree earn, on average, twice as much as their peers with just a high school diploma or less.

Parents: The key to educational attainment

Despite the correlation between education and income, many parents – especially in rural communities – are distrustful of higher education. Many parents in urban and rural areas don’t understand the complexity of paying for college. Parents and students often make early choices that limit future options. Because parents are so influential in their child’s decision to attend college, they need to understand not only the value of higher education, but also how to help their children make paying-for-college decisions.

As advisors, parents also need to know how traditional routes to higher education and the workplace have been upended, especially in light of COVID-19. Enrollment shortfalls are causing some colleges to discount tuition at unprecedented levels. Back in March, the pandemic that forced Keller and Matt’s schools to close also pushed colleges to make adaptations in a few days that otherwise would have taken years to go through. College admission protocols have changed dramatically. Standardized tests have disappeared, and campus visits happen virtually rather than in-person.

During the pandemic, enrollment in short-term credential classes increased by 70 percent, foreshadowing massive changes still to come in the higher education landscape. In short, some of the traditional barriers to college have been lowered, putting higher education in closer reach for many students – providing they know about these new opportunities.

Training and certifying parents

To advance through new pathways to college and the workplace, young people need good information as well as mentoring. While school counselors have tried to serve this role in the past, they’re often too overworked to provide the kind of close, personal attention many students require to navigate the college maze. With school-based support diminished and readiness pathways disrupted, America’s students face a readiness crisis.

In response, CFES has committed to train 20,000 College and Career Readiness Advisors, equally distributed between 80 urban and rural schools over the next 24 months to support parents and help students achieve their dreams. Young people need someone in their corner, and who better to fill this role than a parent? To make this happen, CFES is moving with a sense of urgency to support parents and caregivers.

CCR advisor trainings equip parents and caregivers with up-to-date information, as well as the tools and strategies to advise their children as they enter and advance through their college and career pathway. In January 2021, CFES will offer a CCR Advisor training aimed at parents to focus on their role in these challenging times. Upon completing the CCR Advisor training, parents will be awarded a certificate from the University of Vermont. They will also receive ongoing support from CFES through webinars and digital resources.

Your job as a parent is to position your child for success in college and, yes, the workforce, and the time to start is now.