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Editor’s Corner

Did the Pandemic Impact the Brains of Our Science Students?

The Science Teacher—January/February 2023 (Volume 90, Issue 3)

By Ann Haley MacKenzie

This issue of The Science Teacher focuses on immunology. When March 2020 stomped into our lives, science teaching was upended. We taught science remotely and adapted to online teaching tools such as Flip (then Flipgrid), Screencastify, and myriad others. However, neither the NGSS nor state standards had immunology standards that directly aligned with our lessons to help students understand the science of COVID-19, vaccine development, and pandemics. Many teachers infused the science of pandemics into their lessons. Other teachers wondered what to do, given the emphasis on scientific material on standardized tests.

Once schools reopened, we noted differences in our students’ emotional and psychological states. A recent study in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science found that teen brains aged prematurely during the pandemic (Gotlib et al. 2022). The paper states that teenagers’ brains aged several years in just a few months during the isolation and stress of the pandemic lockdown. The pandemic has become a seminal event in the lives of Gen Z students. The paper suggests the pandemic caused similar effects to the decision-making and emotion centers of the brains as chronic, toxic, and damaging stress. We have seen and experienced our students being more easily frustrated, lacking resilience, giving up on more challenging problems, and being distracted by their phones more so than pre-pandemic levels.

Tracking the brain development of more than 200 9- to 13-year-olds in California in 2016, the researchers then compared brain development after a 10-month-long lockdown in 2020 of the now 13- to 17-year-olds. The study tested how students were affected by the widespread social isolation, financial instability, school disruption, family dynamics, and health stresses. The study focused primarily on white and Asian students of high socioeconomic status. Children from marginalized communities may have experienced even more significant differences, given the adversities they face—such as poverty, food insecurity, financial insecurity, and other situations—but they were not included in the study.

Ian Gotlib, lead author of the study stated, “We know that early adversity and stress can accelerate biological aging and brain maturation. It wasn’t so much the direction of the brain aging that surprised us; it was how pronounced it was for such a relatively short period of time.”

Students experiencing lockdowns showed three to four years of premature aging in their brain’s hippocampus, amygdala, and cerebral cortex. These areas of the brain are associated with concentration, memory, learning and emotional regulation, and impulse control as children mature.

Research on trauma on children shows the many adverse effects trauma has on the brain. Students affected by trauma include those who experience chronic poverty or abusive situations, are neglected, have incarcerated parents, or are in other deleterious environmental situations. We know children experiencing abuse or neglect show premature aging in their brains. This aging manifests itself as a thinning of the cerebral cortices and enlarged hippocampus and amygdala areas of the brain. As a result, these students face a higher risk of memory and learning problems and may be why we are seeing skyrocketing cases of anxiety and depression among our students since the pandemic.

Gotlib’s findings don’t mean that teenagers won’t be able to recover academically or emotionally post-pandemic—the brain has the ability for plasticity and can adapt to new information. Gotlib and his team plan to scan the brains of these teens again when they turn 20. Will their brains return to pre-pandemic development? Is this a temporary response? Is it a permanent impact on their brains? Note: Students who had more stable brain development prior to the pandemic are more resilient than those students experiencing trauma throughout their developmental stages of growth.

How can this study inform our science teaching? We must realize our students’ brains are different than they would have been had there been no pandemic. Their frustrations, lack of patience, lack of resilience, and apparent apathy are real and related to the changes in their brains. This knowledge does not make our jobs any easier, but it does help explain what we’ve been seeing in our science classrooms. We must be cognizant of students’ ability to focus on the science they are experiencing in our classrooms. We must strive to spark their imaginations with phenomenon-based lessons that draw them into an event or situation that seems discrepant or intriguing, especially if it centers around where they live. By infusing mystery surrounding authentic situations, students can become interested in the topic presented. If, however, we continue to teach in a lecture-driven manner, our students’ brains are not provided with the impetus to change and make up for the time in the pandemic lockdown.

The articles in this special issue provide ideas for teachers to upgrade their knowledge on immunology, gain ideas for infusing immunology into their teaching, and rethink applicability and language of the standards to include scientific phenomena that emerge daily but are not necessarily reflected within NGSS and state standards. There is no turning back. We must move forward with our teaching and our care of students, and we must recognize that students truly are different than if the pandemic had never happened. We can no longer be indifferent about the changes we are seeing in our students. We must be there for them. We must provide a caring environment. We must give them the experience of engaging in “real” science. And we must ensure they have a nurturing classroom environment.

Ann Haley Mackenzie ( is Editor of The Science Teacher.


Gotlib, I., J. Miller, L. Borchers, L. Costello, J. Garcia, and T. Ho. 2022. Maturation in adolescents: Implications for analyzing longitudinal data. Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science.

Racine N., B.A. McArthur, J.E. Cooke, R. Eirich, J. Zhu, and S.N. Madigan. 2021. Global prevalence of depressive and anxiety symptoms in children and adolescents during COVID-19: A meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatrics 175: 1142–1150.

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