We have known from the beginning that COVID can cause cognitive processing problems after a severe illness. Now, new research shows that even mild COVID may affect cognitive processing and executive function. Cognitive processing and executive function are essential if we are to correct the learning losses that we have in classrooms right now.
Children cannot learn to read or work math problems if their ability to process information cognitively is severely affected or changed. Children must be mentally engaged with the learning process. They must be able to think and process information in order to learn.
Take reading as an example. Reading comprehension occurs in the brain. A child must be able to cognitively process the information being taught to learn to read. As Dr. Sally Shaywitz explains,
“In order to read, a child must “enter the language system,” this means that the child must activate and use the brain circuits that are already in place for oral language….”
If, after COVID (even mild COVID), the child can no longer “enter the language system” or understand what is being taught in the classroom because of “brain fog” or other processing problems, then the child is not going to learn.
While we have been fighting over keeping children in school, we have totally overlooked the harms of long-covid and now possibly even mild COVID. If future research continues to support the claim that cognitive processing and executive function are affected by even mild COVID, then we have a major problem in the classroom, a problem that pertains directly to learning and correcting learning losses.
Indeed, for the past several weeks, we have been discussing what the schools plan to do—and even possibly should do—to correct learning losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic. As we look for answers to correcting learning losses in the classroom, a new research study has sparked a whole new line of questioning.
Does a Mild COVID Infection Affect How the Brain Functions as Children Experience Learning Loss?
For the most part, schools have only concerned themselves with learning losses caused by lack of classroom attendance, use of online teaching, the wearing of masks, or anything that they considered to interfere with a normal classroom education. Yet, research now shows that even mild cases of COVID can lead to cognitive processing and executive functioning problems.
First, let's define our terms. Then, we will look at the research studies.
The two problems that we are looking at are cognitive processing and executive function. Any educator will tell you that these are very important as children learn. David Eagleman, Ph.D., explains:
“Cognitive processing” describes how the brain gathers and uses information. Slow cognitive processing creates problems when students are trying to learn. Therefore, a problem with cognitive processing caused by COVID should be a major concern as we attempt to correct learning losses."
The second problem that we are looking at is executive function. “Executive function” can be defined like this:
“Executive function is a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. We use these skills every day to learn, work, and manage daily life.”
Cognitive processing and executive function work hand in hand. When cognitive processing slows down for some reason, this affects executive function and the ability to learn. So, if we are to help students overcome learning losses, we absolutely must identify and correct any cognitive processing or executive function problems.
What Does New Research Show?
The recent University of Oxford study showed that even mild COVID can change brain tissue. On Monday, March 7th, the University of Oxford reported on research with 785 participants over the age of 50. These participants had a neural image of their brain on file before COVID. Each participant received two brain scans approximately 38 months apart. Anyone with a severe case (sending them to the hospital) was not included in the study. The researchers found that those who tested positive for COVID-19 showed an:
“… increase in brain tissue damage, a reduction in brain size, and a reduction in gray matter thickness.”
Continuing, they explained that MRI exams showed noticeable brain problems:
“Between the pairs of MRIs, which were separated by an average of about three years, …. those who had Covid [showed]: a greater loss of what’s known as gray matter in the brain, as well as a higher rate of abnormalities in the brain tissue.”
Did these brain abnormalities from mild COVID affect cognitive skills? Yes, they did:
“On cognitive function tests, those who had Covid demonstrated a slower ability to process information and had lower marks on what’s known as executive function, which is an umbrella measure of the brain’s ability to manage complex tasks.”
This is a peer-reviewed study, and the publisher even offers the peer review statements online for you to read.
What Does This Study Prove?
As one researcher from the University of Oxford study stated, there was “definite cognitive decline between the brain scans” from just mild COVID. The Oxford study is one of the first studies to document these cognitive changes in the brain after mild COVID.
This study from the University of Oxford is an excellent study, but as Dr. Benedict Michael from the University of Liverpool told Newsweek, we still need to know more:
"The bottom line is, this is a very methodologically sound study with pre- and post-COVID controls. But now we need studies to determine what this actually means for people in terms of cognitive function and quality of life ...."
We do not have a similar study with pre- and post-neuroimaging brain scans with children, but this study from Oxford is one of the first large-scale pre- and post-test evaluations of the actual changes that occurred in the brain after a mild case of COVID-19. This study was also conducted before the vaccine was widespread.
Are There Any Other Studies That Report Similar Findings?
Even though we do not have pre- and post-brain scans of children who suffered from mild COVID, we do have other studies and some doctors believe that children and teens can be suffering from the same cognitive processing and executive function problems as the people from the Oxford study.
Doctors from Mount Sinai reported that COVID patients 18 and older who were only treated in the emergency department, then released and sent home (mild cases) “…also had developed thinking problems.”
Dr. Igor Koralnik, chief of the division of neuro-infectious disease and global neurology at Northwestern Medicine, supports the findings from Mount Sinai and says that yes young people with mild cases can experience cognitive processing problems.
Dr. Koralnik says:
“This study confirms what we have also seen at Northwestern, that cognitive problems are persistent both in patients who were previously hospitalized and also in patients who had only mild respiratory symptoms….”
So, something is definitely happening in the brain, even when people have a mild case of COVID.
How Does the Oxford Study Relate to Students in the Classroom?
We need to become more aware of these cognitive processing problems, especially as students who have had COVID return to school. What should we do to help these students struggling with mild and long-term COVID problems?
A video of a 12-year-old’s story shows the dramatic difference COVID can make in the life of a young person. I encourage you to watch this video. The video also offers advice on how to deal with long-covid at school.
Where Does That Leave Us in Terms of Learning Loss in the Classroom?
Searching for answers? Many questions remain to be answered. Research continues. Those of us who work with children and teens need to ask what this means for correcting learning losses in the classroom.
Cognitive Processing Problems are not New with Students who Struggle to Read.
At my reading clinic, I will definitely strengthen my efforts in cognitive processing and executive function. I already emphasize these two areas since they are common problems for children struggling to learn to read. I think that it would also be wise for the schools to strengthen support for students struggling with cognitive processing and executive function. COVID may have had more of an effect than we think.
One way that I strengthen cognitive processing and executive function skills at my reading clinic is through hands-on learning projects. For example, the space station displayed at the top of this blog post is an example of an activity that I use. The space station is created completely and totally from the child's imagination. There are no instructions, no patterns. The child must think and figure out how to make things work. As the children go around from workstation to workstation, they create and add to their space station. The children must process information and then use that information to build their space station. The children read stories, and we talk about what astronauts need to survive in space. I have a table full of recyclable materials that they use to make their space station. They may add spelling words at one station, or stories they have written at a different station. The only supplies needed are recyclables (plastic containers, tissue rolls, plastic cups…whatever you have on hand), construction paper, and glue.
I call it the Peaceful World Space Station because I'm always emphasizing peace, sharing, and cooperation while I teach children to read.
Next, we will explore more ways to help students cope with cognitive processing and executive function problems. Stay tuned.