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Pandemic learning loss needs urgent attention in the US, a national survey shows

The “educational damage” caused by the coronavirus pandemic has been “devastating,” according to a recent survey of 26 million elementary and 8-year-olds by researchers at Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth and Harvard. The researchers also found that the pandemic “exacerbated economic and racial inequality in education,” as lead authors Tom Kane of Harvard and Sean Reardon of Stanford wrote in a New York Times essay upon publishing their findings last week.

Standardized test results have also shown that American students are losing ground in math, reading, history and social studies. But the new findings, part of the Educational Recovery Scorecard, add important – and troubling – context while calling for urgent action.

The top line

In a study of 7,800 communities in 40 states and Washington, DC, Kane, Reardon and their colleagues found that between 2019 and 2022, the average ‘American public school student in grades 3 through 8 lost the equivalent of half a year of math. and a quarter of a year of reading.”

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Longstanding educational inequality also played a role: The less wealthy and white a community was, the more likely it was to suffer pandemic losses. This means that the so-called education gap that policymakers are so keen to close will only widen.

The impact of school closures

An empty playground at a public school.

An empty playground at a New York public school in November 2020. (Wang Ying/Xinhua via Getty)

By the fall of 2020, it had become clear that children did not appear to be contracting severe or fatal cases of COVID-19. Schools also did not become the site of mass outbreaks that some feared. Still, in many districts, especially Democratic-controlled ones, schools remained closed to in-person instruction well into 2021.

In late 2022, researchers found that remote learning had caused a pronounced loss of learning. In a brief summary of their findings, the authors of the Education Recovery Scorecard support the evidence for that correlation.

“Districts that spent more time on remote instruction in 2020-2021 suffered greater losses,” they wrote.

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And those losses, they found, were especially pronounced in communities where parents worked in “essential” positions that left them away from home. They wrote: “Distance learning may have been particularly difficult when adults were less able to assist students due to work commitments.”

Social capital

A young girl sits at a desk while participating in a video call with her teacher via a laptop.  (Getty Images)A young girl sits at a desk while participating in a video call with her teacher via a laptop.  (Getty Images)

A child is on a video conference call with her teacher. (Getty Images)

Kane, Reardon and their colleagues don’t blame remote learning for all of the learning loss they’ve seen. They take a more nuanced position and argue that community-level factors also played a role.

In communities with higher COVID mortality rates, math losses were greater. Particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, deaths were concentrated in communities of color with multigenerational households and scarce access to green space.

Unsurprisingly, children did better when they had access to broadband internet. Other studies have concluded that Asian and white households are more likely to have such high-speed connections.

Likewise, communities where adults voted and households responded to the U.S. Census tended to have lower learning loss.

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Broadly speaking, institutional trust also made a difference. Communities where most residents trusted institutions “may have been more willing to collaborate with their local schools and reduce disruptions to student learning,” the researchers wrote.

The distrust could have been caused by a variety of factors, including the spread of pandemic-related political disinformation and suspicion arising from deep-seated prejudices.

Overall, the research suggested that communities with some degree of cohesion and institutional participation tended to provide some sort of safety net for children. “Communities with greater social capital, greater citizen and volunteer participation, and greater connectedness among residents may have been better able to maintain social ties among residents and better support schools and households,” write the authors of the Education Recovery Scorecard.

What’s next?

Elementary school students follow their teacher down a hallway to her classroom.Elementary school students follow their teacher down a hallway to her classroom.

Students from Ellis Elementary School follow their teacher Megan Westmore to her classroom on August 22, 2022 in Denver. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Educators across the country are desperate to keep students in the loop for intensive counseling and other forms of remediation. But it may not be enough. The authors of the sobering Education Recovery Scorecard say more high-quality education is needed. And they point to a proposal that may not be so popular with students: summer school.

“It seems clear that we must approach recovery as an ongoing effort,” they write. “To fully recover, districts will need to continue making coordinated investments in student learning in the coming years.”

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