As the school year begins, there has never been a more important time to address pandemic learning loss. The fast-moving Delta variant and the increasing numbers of children hospitalized mean that plans for the next academic year must be flexible and adaptive, as schools could be forced back into remote or hybrid learning.
Warning bells of Covid-related learning loss have already been rung, but it remains to be seen just how effective efforts to address the losses will be, and what we can do about them as we face another challenging, unstable school year that could further upend academic and social-emotional development.
The most effective methods to address so-called Covid slide rely on a concrete understanding of the pandemic’s impact on student learning. Early on, some researchers and education advocates calculated dire predictions of learning loss, but over time others have used actual student achievement data collected during the pandemic to complement those projections.
Still, a gap remains in understanding just how much loss has occurred and which student groups have been most impacted by the pandemic. Researchers from McKinsey and Amplify have specifically highlighted the effect that the pandemic and school closures have had on minority students and minority-dominant schools, especially Black and Hispanic groups.
To address this gap in understanding, we compiled the findings from robust studies from North America and Europe on the extent of Covid learning loss and used that data to calculate just how real and far-reaching that loss has been. Typically, these studies revealed changes in academic achievement between fall 2019, prior to the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and fall 2020, after students had experienced some remote learning, the length of which depended on the policies and practices of specific countries and school systems. We excluded early studies that simply attempted to predict Covid slide.
Our analysis of studies from North America and Europe confirms that the pandemic had the most serious impact on U.S. students, particularly those in grades K-2, who lost 0.10 more years of learning than upper-grade students.
Our analysis of these studies confirmed that the pandemic had the most serious impact on students in grades K-2, who lost 0.10 more years of learning than upper-grade students.
Students in these early grades depend on both teacher guidance and situational learning; missing out on in-person classroom learning opportunities could have long-lasting effects.
The results from our analysis also pointed to more adverse effects for U.S. students than for many of their European counterparts: They’ve lost twice as much as international students, perhaps due to longer periods of school closures in the U.S.
Overall, according to our calculations, mathematics skills have suffered the most, though students across all grades experienced setbacks in both reading and math. On average, students lost 0.13 more years of math skills than reading skills, roughly another 1.5 months of learning.
This is concerning, given the importance of basic math skills for future learning and life opportunities.
The initial research we reviewed demonstrates an urgent need for states and school districts to address learning loss through remedial education programs. Research Professor Robert Balfanz recently urged schools to implement a combination of guidance for high school students, early warning systems to track students at risk for dropping out and school partnerships with groups like AmeriCorps as a means of getting students back on track.
Tutoring remains one of the strongest proven means of supporting student learning, education research and reform expert Robert Slavin argued, and has been effective in small-group and one-on-one programs. While Balfanz’s policies target older students, there is a growing body of evidence pointing to the benefits of tutoring for all ages.
To support schools in finding the tutoring programs most likely to have a positive impact on students, Slavin and his colleagues compiled a list of evidence-based, proven programs that states and districts can adapt.
Though our review focused on academic outcomes, specific attention and support must also be directed toward the social-emotional health of students, teachers and staff.
The pandemic has caused students trauma, anxiety and stress, through the deaths of loved ones and acquaintances, forced changes in lifestyle and the absence of school-based services and interactions.
Only through a combination of strategies, such as those mentioned above, can we support students to regain learning loss.
Due to the Delta variant’s spread, we are already seeing schools close in rural California, Kentucky and Georgia. Therefore, it is vital that all interventions targeting young students be built with adaptability in mind. This will enable school systems, teachers, students and families to continue teaching and learning should more schools be forced to close and return to remote lessons.
The young students most harmed by the pandemic deserve nothing less than our best efforts.
Nathan Storey and Qiyang Zhang are researchers with the Center for Research and Reform in Education (CRRE) and Ph.D. students at Johns Hopkins University School of Education. Their research focuses on the intersection of education and public health, elementary reading and science and international education, as well as meta-analyses and systematic reviews.
This story about Covid learning loss was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.