COVID-19 Caused Students to Lose One-Third of a Year’s Learning, Says New Study

Since 2020, public spaces like nightclubs, offices, and movie theaters sporadically shuttered their doors to curb COVID-19. While professionals dreaded the monotony of working from home and concert-goers missed live music, young people faced one of social distancing’s starkest side effects: classrooms went virtual.

School closures impacted nearly 95 percent of all school children worldwide, pausing in-person classes and pushing students into the world of remote or hybrid learning. Educators, administrators, and families worked to ensure children didn’t fall behind, but new data reveals students’ learning slowed substantially during the pandemic—and shows limited signs of rebounding.

In a review study published Jan. 30 in the journal Nature Human Behavior, scientists estimate that students lost out on over one-third of what they would have usually learned in a normal school year, especially in math.

The learning losses due to the pandemic are “unprecedented in scale,” compared with other educational disruptions like the 2005 Kashmir earthquake or the Ebola outbreak in the late 2010s, study co-author Bastian Betthäuser, a researcher and professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, told The Daily Beast.

These learning deficits have hit low-income and disadvantaged youth the hardest. The study authors suspect students from these groups have had less access to computers or quiet spaces to learn from home, and have also experienced more socioeconomic stress during the pandemic compared to their high-income peers.

“The learning crisis is also an equality crisis,” Betthäuser said.

Megan Kuhfeld, a senior research scientist at the education nonprofit NWEA in Oregon, who has spent the past three years studying COVID-19’s educational ramifications and was not involved in the new review, told The Daily Beast that there is now “mounting data” highlighting the impact of the pandemic’s disruption to learning. She and her colleagues had previously published a study in 2022 revealing alarming drops in math and reading test scores, as well as a widening achievement gap between low and high-poverty elementary schools.

“The goal of our K-12 education system is to prepare students to succeed in higher education and the workforce so that they have options and skills to succeed,” Kuhfeld said. “When that system was critically disrupted for a significant amount of time, that goal will be that much harder to accomplish, especially for students who were struggling before the pandemic.”

The learning crisis is also an equality crisis.

Bastian Betthäuser, Paris Institute of Political Studies

Remote Losses

To capture the full costs and benefits of school closures, Betthäuser and his research team rounded up all of the existing evidence on the topic. Overall, they analyzed the results of 42 studies on educational outcomes conducted during the first 2.5 years of the pandemic.

The process uncovered some glaring research gaps. Researchers have been focused on educational outcomes in high-income countries like the United Kingdom and the United States, while few focused on middle-income countries. There was zero data on COVID-related learning in low-income countries—a massive evidence gap that Betthäuser urged to be addressed swiftly.

Based on the data they did have, the team estimated that students around the world lost about 35 percent of a school year’s worth of learning. Children experienced learning delays as well as lost skills and knowledge they had already gained. These learning deficits arose early in the pandemic, plateaued, and persist today.

“It’s sobering that we still see these large deficits remain, which reflects the literature on past crises and natural disasters,” Betthäuser said. “Deficits tend to stick unfortunately, and are hard to recover from.”

Students fell furthest behind in math compared to reading—possibly because parents or caregivers are better equipped to pick up the slack reading and had greater access to books, rather than compensate in teaching algebra or calculus.

Erin Grieff, a seventh-grade social studies teacher based in New York City, has observed “alarming” learning disparities in her own classroom. Students living in shelters, crowded homes, or communal spaces often did not have access to private spaces free of distraction. Some of her students’ family members also lost their lives and jobs due to COVID-19. These out-of-school stressors made it harder to focus on learning remotely.

Remote learning took a toll on my students’ lives, but to make it worse, many of their families were not there for their schooling even though they would have loved to be.

Erin Grieff, teacher, New York City

Many of Grieff’s students’ parents were also essential workers whose demanding schedules made it difficult for them to oversee or assist with their children’s remote schooling.

“Remote learning took a toll on my students’ lives, but to make it worse, many of their families were not there for their schooling even though they would have loved to be,” Grieff told The Daily Beast. “Meanwhile, families in wealthier areas had the time and resources to hire tutors or organize small group study sessions for their children.”

Across grade levels, researchers didn’t see huge variation. They did see that learning deficits were largest for disadvantaged students, compared to their wealthier counterparts. Poorer countries also fared worse than richer countries, suggesting the pandemic reinforced learning inequalities at the global level.

But not every community around the world saw their education standards suffer. Countries like Sweden and Denmark did not experience large learning deficits. Betthäuser suggested this may have been because these countries are comparatively well-functioning and generous welfare states that can buffer shocks like the pandemic thanks to services like employment security, which many countries don’t offer. Sweden also experienced some of the shortest school closures on the planet, which meant students did not have to contend with remote or hybrid learning for very long.

Meanwhile, low- and middle-income countries that were already struggling education-wise before the pandemic found their problems exacerbated to new levels when the spring of 2020 arrived. These countries contained fewer resources for remote learning, and generally, experienced longer school closures.

“The pandemic is likely to deepen this learning crisis and undo past progress,” the review’s authors wrote.

The Learning Crisis Looms Large

Betthäuser and his colleagues didn’t identify which interventions or policy changes could remedy the current education fallout. Tutoring programs, summer school, digital or cellular tech interventions, or extended school days or weeks are potential avenues to give children the opportunity to make up for lost time. But it’s a tricky balance to strike, Betthäuser explained, because students only have so much capacity to take in new material. It will take a “huge investment,” from a policy and educator manpower perspective, to get students back on track.

In other words: To recover learning that’s been lost, we cannot go back to normal, Betthäuser stressed.

Kuhfeld is in full agreement, and emphasized that “our approach cannot be a one-size-fits-all strategy. The impact wasn’t equal so that magic recovery pill doesn’t exist.”

Instead, she argued, the strategy should be focused on meeting the diverse needs of students with interventions grounded in data.

To recover learning that’s been lost, we cannot go back to normal.

Some countries have actually already implemented these strategies and invested significant resources to tackle the issue. Educators have taken an innovative approach in Botswana, for example, where SMS texts with math problems have led to positive numeracy gains.

But to date, there are only small, early signs of progress. One December 2022 report from Kuhfeld’s team at NWEA suggests students lost less ground over summer 2022 compared to pre-pandemic trends. Betthäuser’s team did not find evidence that learning deficits have diminished, despite these efforts.

It’s too early to predict if students with lingering learning loss will struggle down the line, in university or the workforce. Some researchers estimate that the recent decline in academic gains—if left unchecked—could result in students having 2 to 9 percent lower lifetime income depending on the state in which they attended school.

“The public and governments have to brace for serious downstream effects,” Betthäuser said.

Grieff said that it’s too soon to predict exactly how her students will fare in the future. But for now, her students appear to be bouncing back after a difficult few years.

“The kids have been through so much, but they are strong and they have adapted better than most adults,” Grieff said. “We need to give students and teachers recognition for pivoting in this time, and make sure that there is long-term funding to support them.”

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