Lost and Found?: Addressing COVID-19 “Learning Loss”

By David Nurenberg

At just about a month away from the beginning of the 2021-2022 academic year, two words are on the mind of every school administrator: “learning loss.” Learning loss describes the gap between how much students have learned during a year in school and how much they are normally expected to learn, in terms of progress towards state-defined learning standards. Over the past year of the pandemic, students missed out on a great deal of in-school instruction. Just how much they missed varies, as every one of the 13,000 public school districts in the nation made different choices. A report by McKinsey And Company estimates approximately 60% of K-12 students started last school year fully remote, with 20% in a hybrid model and 20% fully in person – but the report doesn’t track at what point during the year, if at all, students returned to full-time in-person instruction, and firm figures as to how much learning loss occurred during that remote time are even harder to come by thanks to uneven data collection and measurement. Suffice to say, almost all teachers (97% in one recent national survey) report some learning loss among their students, and the degree of this loss varies enormously depending on which children we’re talking about. There are vast inequities, both between schools’ ability to provide more in-person learning and/or higher quality remote instruction, and between students, based on the financial and physical health of their families during this time, the robustness of their at-home support systems, etc. Many white, affluent families were able to leverage their usual advantages to maintain or even advance their kids’ academic progress during this time, while many Black and Brown children, especially those from less wealthy backgrounds, fell even farther behind. COVID made these always-present disparities even more pronounced.

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