COVID-19 may have impacted our children’s learning progress in school: Where do we go from here?

Children lost out on about one-third of what they usually would have learned.

January 30, 2023, 11:03 AM

School-aged children faced significant learning loss during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, data shows.

The finding shows that, even though we have developed new tools, like effective vaccines, to protect us from COVID-19, long-term ramifications persist.

Children lost out on about one-third of what they usually would have learned during the academic year from 2020 to mid-2022, according to a new analysis published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

"Children still have not recovered the learning that they lost out at the start of the pandemic," said Bastian Betthäuser, an assistant professor at the Observatoire Sociologique du Changement at Sciences Po in France and lead author of the new study, during a press briefing.

They didn't appear to lose additional ground as the pandemic went on, he said — but governments also weren't able to recover the initial deficits, the study said.

The new data joins a bigger-picture evaluation of how the disruptions caused by the pandemic — like school closures, widespread illness, and social changes — affected children's learning. And it's contributing to the growing efforts to figure out the best way to move forward.

PHOTO: FILE - Children arrive at school in New York, March 7, 2022.
Children arrive at school in New York, March 7, 2022.
Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images, FILE

"It's very hard to recover learning deficits, once they're there," Betthauser said during the press briefing.

To understand learning loss during the pandemic, researchers collected data from 42 previous studies from 15 countries, published within the March 2020 to August 2022 time frame. The researchers estimated that, collectively, students experienced a decline in knowledge and skills equivalent to approximately 35% of the overall school years' worth of learning. These deficits remained constant for the approximately 2.5-year time period studied.

The research team saw a similar pattern when they looked at data from the United States alone.

The new study also suggested that COVID-19 increased the educational inequalities between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Although most data was from high-income countries and middle-income countries, researchers found that students in middle-income countries had greater learning deficits than students in higher-income countries.

The new study also showed that math skills were harder hit than reading skills.

That might be because parents were better equipped to help their kids with reading than math, and the greater need for closer guidance in the STEM fields, the research team suggested in the study.

What contributed to learning loss?

The new study did not evaluate the actual causes of the learning losses, but experts point to a number of factors — changes to the school environment, disruption in family life, limited face-to-face instruction, reduced extracurriculars, along with many other possibilities.

"There's been a lot of debate on how variation in academic decline plays out across states and policy choices about closing schools, but, at this point, it's not clear that school closure policies were the main driver of the drops in performance," Nathaniel Schwartz, director of applied research at Brown University's Annenberg Institute for School Reform, told ABC News.

And it's not clear what the alternatives could have been, experts said. During the start of the pandemic, when much was still unknown about the virus, policy makers and school leaders across the world had to make quick decisions and adapt to a volatile landscape.

Rachel Ohayon, a former 5th grade science teacher at a New York City charter school experienced the challenges of transitioning to online school. Setting disciplinary boundaries and simulating the classroom environment in a completely new virtual platform was not easy, she told ABC News.

"I think my school had a slight advantage because we gave out chrome books to our students, so they were all set up when we went remote," she said. But even with these measures in place she said it was still difficult to achieve the same level of focus among her students.

School closings likely impacted more than just educational progress. Children's learning online may have also impacted their social and emotional development according to Paul Peterson, director of the program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University.

"The transition back to in person learning was exhausting and stressful, we had to deal with a lot of acting out and intense emotions as children came back to school," said Ohayon.

How do we help kids recover?

Along with understanding the learning gaps, experts are working to identify the best way to recover from them.

"There are two points of view: that we can make it up or that we can't make it up," Peterson said.

"I'm concerned we didn't really think about this during the pandemic -- what we would do the day schools reopened," he said. Peterson added that actions taken to help combat these deficits may have been insufficient and too slow.

Schools are also struggling to find staff for programs that could try to close gaps, Shwartz said.

"Schools and districts are facing a landscape where hiring for these positions is difficult, where other ongoing work is crowding out possible new programs - and truly, where many of the people in schools at both the staff and student level are often feeling drained," Schwartz said.

Betthäuser is more optimistic. "I wouldn't say it's a hopeless case at all," he said in the briefing.

Peterson said one-to-one instruction may be the most effective type of intervention.

"My own view is that tutoring is the best intervention. It's expensive but allows you to target the intervention to the specific child," he said.

Parents can also use time at home to provide one-to-one support to their kid, he said.

In Ohayon's school, they tripled the size of the guided reading program in an effort to "close the gap from remote learning," she said.

It's hard to balance additional instruction against the risks of overloading kids with work. "Kids only have so much capacity to take in new material to learn new skills," Betthauser said in the briefing. He thinks summer time break may be a good time for targeted interventions. "We know from the summer learning literature that there is potential for summer learning programs to help children learn and also to prevent inequalities from widening during this period."

Experts said there needs to be a collaborative effort to critically assess how these gaps can be addressed. Such actions are especially critical in lower-income settings, where access and quality of education was already compromised. Students with special educational needs may also require extra attention.

Ohayon said her biggest takeaway as a science teacher was on the "importance of connecting with students." The best way she's found to help her students make up their gaps is by coming up with creative ways to engage them in the classroom.

"There's a lot that can be done," Betthauser said in the briefing, "I think it's important that we're honest about the size of the problem and try to match that."

Eden David studied neuroscience at Columbia University and is currently a third-year medical student and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.

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