Helping Kids Overcome the Pandemic Learning Loss

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Jeff White, CEPF

By Jeff White, CEPF

January 27, 2023

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused our schools to shut down for months and pushed our kids out of the classroom and into online learning, this had a profound impact on students in more ways than one. Along with the stress, disruption and social isolation, many students fell behind where they would have been had in-classroom education continued, especially in terms of math and language skills.

This is what is known as learning loss, a phenomenon that has long been recognized by educators but never before seen at such a severe and widespread scale. One potentially bad result for many could be children growing up receiving fewer scholarships if they aren’t able to qualify. It’s really important to plan ahead and find ways your kids might be able to pay for college as early as possible.

What Is Learning Loss in Kids?

“Learning loss” is a term used to describe how students can fall behind – usually measured in terms of literacy and numeracy skills – when they’re absent from a formal classroom setting for extended periods of time. This could occur due to a variety of reasons, including long vacation periods, prolonged illness, or school closures.

Some commentators have suggested that we should use the term “missed learning” instead, as this better reflects the phenomenon. They argue it’s not so much about kids losing information or skills they’ve already learned, but rather missing out on things they would have learned otherwise, in optimal learning conditions.

However, there can be some element of loss, even in the course of normal schooling. Educators and researchers have long discussed learning loss in the context of lengthy summer vacations and the absence of classroom-based learning, arguing that students fall behind during this period, and effectively have to catch up when they come back to school in the fall.

During the pandemic, learning loss became a hot topic, with parents, teachers, and academics discussing how replacing formal classrooms with remote learning may have impacted kids’ education, and the long-term effects this could have.

How the Pandemic Impacted Learning

Pandemic learning loss is estimated to have set students back the equivalent of weeks of in-classroom learning due to students’ long disruption to regular learning. Although online learning can be equally effective as in-classroom tuition, when remote schooling was suddenly implemented during the pandemic, teachers were unprepared and lacked the necessary training, tools, and software to be able to deliver a level of education equivalent to what they were able to provide when schools were open.

Additionally, many students lacked the necessary equipment, a stable internet connection, or a suitable learning environment necessary to be able to learn effectively at home. When they returned from the long disruption, many students were far behind where they should have been at that point in the school year.

Academics at Harvard University studied test scores from over two million elementary and middle school students and found that students who learned remotely for just one month during the pandemic lacked the equivalent of seven to 10 weeks of math education.

The research focused on math education, but they believe learning loss was similar in other areas such as reading. It’s also difficult to estimate the loss in other areas which are more difficult to measure, such as social-emotional skills.

On the other hand, there has been a growing movement to say that discussions about learning loss from COVID over exaggerate the problem. Many teachers, parents, and commentators point out that, while students have missed out on specific classroom-based learning during the pandemic, they had plenty of other experiences that represented an alternative and potentially equally valuable learning experiences.

For example, kids faced new kinds of adversity during the pandemic, and in response developed invaluable skills such as responsibility, maturity, and gratitude. Others argue that taking a break from studying something can actually help students to gain a deeper understanding of the concepts in the long run.

Recent Findings on Learning Loss

Research has found that learning loss due to COVID could impact kids’ future earning potential by up to $40,000 over their lifetime or $17 trillion in lifetime earnings for the whole generation.. Furthermore, analysts have found that pandemic learning loss disproportionately affected communities of color as well as those in lower-income areas. Schools in these communities had higher rates of remote teaching, and many returned to in-classroom education later than those serving predominantly affluent, white populations.

This was partly due to schools reopening later, for example in the poorer and more ethnically-diverse parts of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. On average, high-poverty schools had 5.5 additional weeks of remote education than their counterparts during the 2020-21 academic year.

However, another contributing factor was that parents of color were more reluctant to send their kids back to the classroom, most likely because of vastly different experiences of the pandemic compared to their white peers. For example, an August 2020 study found that 57% of black Americans reported knowing at least one person who either died or was hospitalized due to COVID, versus just 34% of white American adults.

Learning at high-poverty schools was not only more likely to be remote, but remote instruction also caused greater learning loss at these schools. The research by Harvard found that students at high-poverty schools who learned remotely for most of the 2020-21 school year missed equally to 22 weeks of math learning compared to the equivalent of around 13 weeks for students in low-poverty schools.

These statistics reflect another impact of the pandemic on the learning outcomes of children from Black, Latino, and BIPOC communities. Bereavement is one of the most damaging factors that can impact a child’s learning, and children from these communities are twice as likely to lose a caregiver to COVID than white kids.

Furthermore, children from more impoverished backgrounds were more likely to experience homelessness and/or food insecurity during the pandemic. These factors undoubtedly had an impact on student’s ability to learn effectively.

The COVID-19 pandemic also deterred high school graduates from starting college. According to a study from Brookings, high school leavers were 6% less likely to enroll in a four-year degree and 16% less likely to join a two-year college during the pandemic. Pandemic learning loss most likely contributed to this, as well as general upheaval and the economic recession which followed the pandemic. With many families struggling financially, paying for college became even more difficult than before.

If you’re worried about how to fund your child’s college education, take a look at this post on six ways to save for college.

How to Help Your Kids Overcome Potential Learning Loss

One way that parents can help their kids catch up after a loss of learning is by signing them up for high-dosage tutoring, an approach that involves regular tutoring sessions in small groups.

Experts recommend two or three weekly sessions of at least 30 minutes with no more than three students per group. Rather than rehashing old material, the aim of high-dosage tutoring is to help students grasp new concepts and move forward through the curriculum.

Encouraging your children to adopt a growth mindset can also help them to overcome learning loss and move forward with their educational journey. This approach, coined by Carol Dweck, teaches that they can train and strengthen their brain as they would a muscle, and through dedication, the regular effort they’ll see academic results over time.

Finally, it’s important not to put too much pressure on your kids or overemphasize the extent of the problem. Recognize that they’ve been through a lot over the last few years, and through this adversity, they’ve had different kinds of pandemic learning experiences that will prepare them to face future challenges in ways that can’t be learned in the classroom.

How to Prevent Potential Future Learning Loss

Whether we’ll again see a disruption to our children’s education on the scale experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic is uncertain. Even in the event of another pandemic or global crisis, we can hope that the impacts on schooling will be less severe thanks to the lessons learned by educators over the past few years, as well as the development of online learning tools and infrastructure.

However, even in the course of a normal school year, kids can experience learning loss for a variety of reasons, most commonly during long summer vacations. As a parent, you can help to prevent learning loss through activities over the summer break such as:

  • Learning tasks such as counting and handwriting exercises for younger children, or writing activities and math reviews for older children
  • Craft projects
  • Thoughtful play such as card games, building games
  • Getting ahead with next year’s reading list
  • Playdates with other children to develop social skills

It may also be beneficial for parents to see the summer as a period of enrichment that supplements the learnings their children experience in the classroom, rather than trying to replicate it through summer schools, reading programs, or structured tutoring.

Summer enrichment could involve encouraging your children to discover independent ways of learning, such as through reading books they enjoy, and learning new skills through different types of activities. For example, joining a summer sports team will allow your child to develop a range of skills, from hand-eye coordination to teamwork.

The Bottom Line

Learning loss became widely known during the COVID-19 pandemic, but this is a phenomenon that has long been recognized, especially in the context of the long summer break. Although the impacts of pandemic learning loss may have been exaggerated by the media, there’s no denying that the disruption to our children’s schooling has set them back in areas such as math and language skills, and this may affect their earning potential over the long term.

Parents can help their kids recover from learning loss, through high-dosage tutoring and fostering a growth mindset. They can also help prevent future learning loss through enrichment activities during the summer break and at any other time that their child is out of the classroom for a prolonged period of time.

For more on how you can support your child’s education right through to the college level, see our posts on 529 savings plans, the pros and cons of these kinds of plans, the FAFSA, and FAFSA deadlines.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can parents prevent learning loss?

Yes, there are a number of things that parents can do to help prevent learning loss when their child doesn’t have access to in-classroom learning, whether because of global events, summer vacation, or something else. This can include arranging formal tutoring, as well as doing structured and unstructured educational activities with their kids.

What does the term learning loss mean?

Learning loss refers to the missed learning opportunities that occur when children do not experience quality, in-classroom teaching for significant amounts of time. Although it can apply to any situation when children are out of the classroom for prolonged periods, recently, it has most commonly been applied to the crisis in education during the pandemic, and the education lost as schools were forced to suddenly shut down for months.

What can we say instead of learning loss?

Some commentators have argued that the term “learning loss” doesn’t accurately represent what happened during the pandemic, as students did not so much lose their knowledge as miss out on the learning opportunities they would have had in the classroom. Some have proposed “missed learning” as a more accurate description.

A good place to start:

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