What do kids need to overcome pandemic learning loss?

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

As schools across the country gear up for yet another school year influenced by the coronavirus pandemic, educators are beginning to take stock of the impact that 18 months of disruptions, uncertainty and remote schooling have had on students. While heated fights about mask requirements and vaccine mandates have consumed most of the headlines, schools are also grappling with a less visceral, but no less important, debate over how to help children make up for all they’ve lost over the past 18 months.

A handful of recent studies have found that the nation’s students have fallen behind dramatically since the pandemic began. On average, K-12 students in the United States are five months behind in math and four months behind in reading, relative to expected progress in a normal academic year, according to a study from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Test scores from Texas and Indiana, among the first states to release results from the past academic year, show significant declines in reading and math. Research shows the biggest drops were among people of color and children from vulnerable groups.

Quantifying something as abstract as educational growth is tricky, but these studies provide a troubling window into learning loss suffered by children across the country. Learning loss is an oft-debated metric used by educators to gauge how much extended gaps in schooling stall students’ academic progress. The idea is most commonly associated with the “summer slide,” which occurs when children spend 10 weeks out of the classroom every year. Learning loss has been studied for decades, as have strategies to overcome it. But the extraordinary — and ongoing — disruptions caused by the pandemic are likely to require an unprecedented effort to get kids back on track.

Why there’s debate

The single most important factor in overcoming learning loss, many argue, is ensuring that children are able to attend school in person as much as possible. There’s disagreement among that group, however, over whether keeping kids in the classroom should mean strong virus mitigation protocols, like distancing and masks. Dissenters argue that these measures will stunt student learning.

President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package included $129 billion for K-12 education, which means that schools will have more resources than they typically do to funnel toward programs to counteract learning loss. Proposed areas where that money could be allocated include hiring more teachers, intensive tutoring, counseling, outreach for vulnerable students and accelerated learning programs.

Many education researchers, on the other hand, reject the idea that learning loss should be an area of focus when students return to schools. They argue that data on learning loss is gathered through flawed standardized tests that don’t provide any insight into students’ emotional, structural and social needs. Helping children with those issues, not with academics, should be the top priority for schools after the trauma students have endured in the past 18 months, they say.


Students should be given many more opportunities to learn

“We would urge school districts, if they haven’t already, to invest heavily in tutoring and extended school calendars for students who need additional help. … Here’s the bottom line. Children will not make up lost ground unless we help them with all the resources that we can bring to the challenge.” — Editorial, Dallas Morning News

Money must go to the children who need it most

“This is a moment where there is kind of an influx of federal funding that we’ve never seen before, that can be devoted towards recovery. And our call to action is: ‘The pandemic was uneven in how it impacted kids, and allocating the recovery funds must also be uneven.’ We must get supports to the kids and the schools that will most benefit from those supports at this moment.” — Karyn Lewis, education researcher, to MSNBC

Schools need the freedom to spend federal funds in the best way for their students

“Teachers and principals know best what their schools and students need. As much as possible, school leaders must be given the budgetary autonomy to direct these federal funds to their classrooms and students. We must trust educators to support children’s academic, social and emotional recovery, and provide educators with the training and resources to do it well.” — Will Austin, Hechinger Report

Children need stability and emotional support in order to thrive academically

“To alleviate teens’ academic worries, schools can cultivate structure and routine for students as they resume some normalcy. Social connection and communication between students and teachers should be prioritized, including opportunities for students to express their worries early on. Meeting with guidance counselors for support at the outset of the upcoming school year may help students cope with the transition out of the pandemic.” — Leah M. Lessard, Conversation

The top priority should be keeping kids in the classroom

“Plummeting test scores are not the point, but they do convincingly point to the failure of pandemic remote schooling. It would be foolish to push schools to respond by narrowly prioritizing test score gains — and equally foolish to dismiss them as unimportant, because they starkly highlight the extent of the damage remote schooling has done.” — Nat Malkus, The Hill

Ending masking and other protocols will create a better learning environment

“At times during this pandemic, COVID protocols have been necessary in order to safely reopen schools. As long as the Delta variant does not become more dangerous to kids than the original coronavirus, we should be safe to end the protocols. They are a disruption to learning for our children who have so much ground to catch up on after a year and a half of school closures.” — Ryan Hooper, The Dispatch

Overcoming learning loss starts with accepting that it’s a real problem

“You can’t look at starting fresh in the next grade and next chapter if kids don’t have certain foundational skills from the year before. We’re just going to have to be open, as parents, to hearing: ‘My kid is a level behind, and I need to do this.’” — Lisa Collum, Top Score Writing CEO, to HuffPost

Learning loss is a myth

“There is no such thing as learning loss. … It is loss of a previously imagined trajectory leading to a previously imagined future. Learning is never lost, though it may not always be ‘found’ on pre-written tests of pre-specified knowledge or preexisting measures of pre-coronavirus notions of achievement.” — Rachel Gabriel, Washington Post

Kids have learned a lot during the pandemic, it just doesn’t show up in test scores

“Framing the last year as one of lost learning is the ultimate disrespect to the efforts, successes and learning of kids and families. It lays the blame on kids and not the system that has failed them for a long time. The reality, of course, is that kids, their families and teachers learned a great deal about persistence, resourcefulness and survival. And tests are not the one or best indicator we have of what our students need.” — Nancy Ironside, Philadelphia Inquirer

Focusing on correcting learning loss will only set students even further behind

“If we fail to look at the full picture, the full breadth and depth of student experience and education in the past year, we will see students — particularly those in poorer districts — inundated with a barrage of intensive test-centered reading and math. This is never a good idea, but in a year in which students have so many other pressing pandemic needs and issues, it’s an even worse idea.” — Peter Greene, Forbes

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