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Learning Loss—COVID’s Impact on Education

by David Engle | Dec 03, 2020 | 10 min read

We’re about nine months into what feels like an eternity living in the COVID-19 world. By now, we’re all well aware of social distancing and can subconsciously feel when someone is too close to us in the supermarket. We all grab masks just as we’d grab our wallet and keys as we head out the door. We wash hands and use sanitizer as soon as we leave a store. We elbow-bump instead of shake hands…ok, maybe not so much. The point is, we’re all getting used to some of the everyday inconveniences presented by COVID-19 and managing to live with them.

There are some situations that we haven’t adapted to quite as easily as wearing a mask in public or hand washing–the difficulties so many small business owners are dealing with during this time, when dreams are being dashed and doors are being shut due to necessary restrictions or consumers simply saving their money during an uncertain time; the harsh reality of the subsequent unemployment, which has caused lines at food banks that haven’t been seen in America since the Great Depression; the inability to embrace loved ones, especially during their final moments; and the impact that a whole new type of education is having on children around the globe.

You’ve heard of the “summer slide,” and by now you’re probably also familiar with the term “COVID slide.” This is essentially the loss of learning suffered by kids of all ages due to disruptions in education, the inability to receive in-person schooling in some areas, and the frustration that some families who are new to at-home learning have experienced. To better illustrate the impact that COVID-19 is having on education, let’s start at the beginning.

Inequitable Access to Education and Technology

When most schools either closed or turned to entirely remote learning back in March, one problem immediately surfaced–the lack of equity in technology availability and educational opportunity based on race and income. Not just in the United States…throughout the world. Though there’s no lack of effort when it comes to the education system trying to provide all students with comparable access to technology and high-quality learning, the fact of the matter is that a wide disparity exists between low-income and higher-income families when it comes to the technology required to conduct sufficient online learning.

When schools first switched to online learning in the spring, it was a rocky transition for many families. And this was through no fault of most schools, as they were simply doing the best they could during a very unique situation that no one was truly prepared for. Some students made the transition smoothly, with access to everything they needed at home. Others found themselves without high-speed internet access, computers, printers, or even cell phone service. It’s impossible to conduct remote learning without these critical components, but that’s the reality that many low-income families faced. When school resumed in the fall, schools were better equipped to handle the technology issue, with many districts able to provide students with their own Chromebooks, tablets, or laptops. Some internet providers even offered free high-speed service to poor areas so kids and parents could work safely from home. These are noble measures that have made a difference, but disparities remain.

In conducting research to predict the level of learning loss students will experience during the course of the pandemic, McKinsey determined that “learning loss will probably be greatest among low-income, Black, and Hispanic students.” Their reasoning is that lower-income students are still less likely to have access to high-quality online learning, less access to devices that don’t need to be shared among family members, less parental teaching and interaction, and even a learning environment conducive to schooling. According to research from Curriculum Associates, creators of the i-Ready digital instruction and assessment software, more students in higher minority and higher poverty schools tended to be two or more grade levels below where they should be this fall than students in lower minority, lower-poverty schools. Similarly, suburban schools had the lowest percentage of students two or more grade levels below.

Even more telling is that other data from Curriculum Associates hint that only 60 percent of low-income students regularly logged into online class, whereas 90 percent of high-income students did. In schools with high populations of Black and Hispanic students, engagement rates also hovered between 60 and 70 percent. That means up to 40 percent of these students were not attending any type of school whatsoever.

Furthermore, teachers in high-poverty areas reported widespread absences from school during remote learning, whereas some students throughout the country simply disconnected from school altogether. This obviously leads directly to learning loss.

The Impact of School Disruption on Learning Loss

COVID-19 learning loss will be studied for decades. It’s a fascinating, once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) phenomenon that could have a major impact on the future…we’ll get into that shortly. But research to this point has been a bit tricky to decipher, especially since it’s still ongoing. We’re three to four months into the 2020-21 school year, and studies are still being conducted about the impact that the pandemic had on schooling during the spring. So it will take some time to gather the data on how spring’s remote learning, followed immediately by summer and then either fully remote or hybrid schooling this fall, impacted learning loss to this point.

That said, there are some numbers to illustrate the impact that COVID had during the spring. A report released in August 2020 by Illuminate Education revealed that students are likely to experience anywhere from two to four months of learning loss as a result of COVID-19 disruptions–but more so in grades K-2 than any other.

For some background on this study, Illuminate Education compared reading and math scores to estimate normal summer learning loss, then calculated the learning attributed to instruction between spring 2019 and fall 2019 screenings. National growth norms were used to create a more precise estimate of learning loss without in-person instruction and to project expected loss from school closures in March. These findings found various levels of loss by grade level, but the conclusion was that most students started the 2020-21 school year behind where they would normally be after summer break.

The study showed that learning losses in reading and math were found across all grade levels:

  • Reading learning loss was greatest among K-2 students (up to two months), most glaringly in kindergarten.
  • Oral reading fluency loss was highest in grade 5.
  • Math learning loss rates were higher in grades K-5–up to four months.

There’s an interesting geographical component to all of the data as well. For example, students in southern and midwestern states appear to be the most at-risk academically than other parts of the country due to coronavirus school closings. Some of this ties into the technology gaps we referred to earlier in this article: most states in the bottom 10 as far as access to the internet and devices are located in the South. Mississippi ranked dead last related to internet availability for educational purposes, while West Virginia scored lowest when it came to access to devices for education. Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Missouri were also among the higher-risk states. Conversely, Vermont led the way as being the lowest-risk state for learning loss; other lower-risk states included Idaho, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, and Rhode Island.

All of this is to say that, while there has been learning loss across the board, it’s more concentrated among certain geographic regions and demographics.

Predicting Future Ramifications of COVID Learning Loss

In McKinsey’s report, they looked at a few hypothetical scenarios concerning the coronavirus.  Let’s review some of their projected long-term consequences of COVID learning loss, keeping in mind that these models were created prior to school resuming in the fall: one model used a “virus contained” projection that had in-class instruction resuming in the fall 2020; the second was a ”virus resurgence” scenario in which school closures and part-time schedules continued intermittently throughout the 2020-21 school year, and in-school instruction does not fully resume before January 2021; the final model used a worst-case “pandemic escalation” scenario predicated upon the notion that the virus was never contained and in-school instruction would not take place at all during the 2020-21 school year.

For the sake of brevity, and because we’re actually now aware that the second model most closely represents what much of the country is experiencing, we’ll focus solely on that scenario–intermittent school closures and part-time schedules throughout the school year. In reality, most schools have been operating with a hybrid instructional model that involves students attending school for either partial days or weeks and complementing the shortened in-person days with remote learning.

In this model, McKinsey concludes that “students…could lose three to four months of learning if they receive average remote instruction, seven to 11 months with lower-quality remote instruction, and 12 to 14 months if they do not receive any instruction at all.” This comes out to an average of seven months of learning loss. Breaking it down further to highlight the inequity of technology and education, McKinsey estimates that “Black students may fall behind by 10.3 months, Hispanic students by 9.2 months, and low-income students by more than a year.” Additionally, McKinsey predicts that COVID-19 closures may very well increase high school dropout rates across all races.

Perhaps most alarming, however, is what this study forecasts economically. Using learning loss and increased dropout rates as primary factors, McKinsey sees long-term harm for society as a whole. Based on the same virus scenario (“virus resurgence”), they calculated the potential economic impact of COVID learning loss–and it’s a bit frightening:

  • The average K-12 American student could lose between $61,000 and $82,000 in lifetime earnings, essentially the equivalent of an above-average full-year salary.
  • While White students project to earn approximately $1,350 per year less over a 40-year work span, Black students project to lose nearly $2,200 per year and Hispanic students just over $1,800 per year.
  • Cumulatively, this adds up to approximately $110 billion in annual earnings lost across all current K-12 students during their work lives.
  • Of that $110 billion, nearly $99 billion would be the result of learning loss and approximately $11 billion would be linked to more dropouts.

Money aside, McKinsey notes that less education could potentially lead to a less healthy lifestyle, increased crime and incarceration levels, and decreased political participation. Adding ALL of this together, McKinsey’s conclusion is that an entire cohort of K-12 students could be less skilled and less productive than students from other generations whose learning was not disrupted.

It’s Not All Gloom and Doom

Despite what at first glance would appear to be a cataclysmic ripple effect caused by COVID learning loss, not everyone subscribes to that theory. Some think it’s all a bunch of guesswork at this point. That faction doesn’t believe the COVID learning loss will be quite as bad as others predict it will be. After all–especially during the fall–there IS learning going on. Quite a bit of it, actually. Spring was a rough patch to be sure. But most schools learned from those few months and spent the summer implementing new and improved remote learning plans, hiring teachers who have remote instructing experience, investing in new software and technology designed for virtual learning, and creating a formal hybrid learning environment.

Some of these projections approach the level of dire when, in fact, no one really knows what the outcome will be–and we probably won’t understand the level of learning loss for years to come. Interestingly enough, however, Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready Diagnostic test results from this fall tell a somewhat-different story. Their numbers show that, yes, COVID learning loss is real, but it may not be as severe as was originally anticipated–especially related to reading. The analysis actually suggests students scored better on tests taken at home than in the classroom. Their summary states: “Overall, diagnostic testing of students returning to school in-person (whether hybrid or full-time) suggests that last spring’s school shutdowns negatively affected students across the board, translating into a greater number of students entering school this fall who aren’t ready for grade-level work. But our findings also suggest that students in grades 1 through 5 who sat for assessments in math and reading at-home this fall markedly outperformed both their peers who returned to school, and historic trends.” Why? They don’t know.

What they do know is that when looking at data from in-school testing, which are consistent with typical in-school testing environments, “we see that more students entering school this fall are unprepared for grade-level work (testing two or more grade levels below their current grade). These differences are especially stark across grades 2 through 4, and are worse in math than in reading. The report continues, “the data also show that a full 30 percent of second graders are two or more grade levels below below in math, 10 percentage points higher than the historical average.” In reading, however, the slide was not as drastic; and oddly, students who took diagnostic assessments at home in the fall showed an improvement over previous years.

So, not all is lost, though we won’t truly know for quite some time just how much of an impact COVID learning loss had on students across the country.

At-Home Learning Is a High-Quality Option

Perhaps lost in all of the talk and fear of the “COVID slide” is the fact that kids of all ages can receive an absolutely amazing education learning strictly from home. Consider these facts provided by the National Home Education Research Institute:

  • Home-educated children typically score 15 to 30 percentile points higher than public school students on standardized tests.
  • Among Black homeschool students, those numbers increase to 23 to 42 percentile points higher than Black public school students.
  • Homeschool students achieve above-average scores on achievement tests regardless of their parents’ formal education or family income.
  • Children educated at home typically score higher than average on SAT and ACT college admissions tests.

Even before the pandemic, homeschooling had been growing in popularity, with an estimated 3.3% of all students in the US being homeschooled. COVID-19, however, kicked homeschool enrollment into high gear. A Gallup study published in August revealed that 10 percent of parents stated that their child would be homeschooled during the 2020-21 school year. Not learning from home through their public school…full homeschooling. Perhaps unsurprisingly, but undoubtedly related, public school enrollment dropped 9 percentage points from 85 percent to 76 percent this year.

The uptick in homeschooling is surely a combination of factors: fears about safety amidst a pandemic, lack of trust in public school systems to provide the education (whether hybrid or remote) that their child needs, and general dissatisfaction with their school system. And while homeschooling remains the standard-bearer for home education, remote learning through public schools is gaining some traction this year. The quality of education has improved since the spring, and it’s become a viable alternative to risking exposure to COVID-19 in school. In-person learning (for those who don’t homeschool full-time) will always be the preferred scenario for those in the school system, but homeschooling and the pandemic have shown the world that kids can receive a dependable, high-quality, accredited education at home, one that’s recognized by elite colleges and universities across the globe.

So, while COVID learning loss is certainly real and something to keep an eye on for several years to come, the past nine months have managed to provide a glimmer of hope. Students’ and parents’ eyes have been opened to a whole new type of education, one that offers more flexibility while still providing a world-class learning experience. But it’s an experience that children of all races, backgrounds, and economic levels should be able to participate in. Confronting and fixing the education and technology gap in America should be a top priority, because if humankind faces another global crisis such as the one we’re living through right now, those on the wrong side of that gap may never recover. Affordable, high-quality education should be available to all, whether that takes place within the walls of a school or at home.
If you’re not already homeschooling but are considering your options, Bridgeway Academy offers a wide range of educational choices, from Self-Paced Courses to Live Online Classes, complete Grade Level Kits, and even homeschool courses for charter school students. We also give you the option of textbook learning, online schooling, and blended courses for certain grade levels. Many of our programs provide accreditation and support from academic advisors, so we’re with you every step of the way. To learn more about what Bridgeway has to offer, give us a call at (800) 863-1474.


David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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