COVID Learning Loss: Is it Real?

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Are you as tired of talking about the 2020-21 school year as I am? COVID learning loss. The “COVID Slide.” Local fights about the best way to provide for children’s wellbeing. Worrying national news in the areas of health and learning. It’s a lot to process. 

For most of us, starting school in the fall (or sending our kids) and following that routine until summer has been automatic. Easy? Nope. But “normal,” just the way things are. 

But since March, 2020, when schools started closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, nothing has been “normal.” My tutoring students, in grades 1-11, all over the US, have had schedules ranging from full remote to full in-person. They have adjusted to changes in schedule, transportation, and work expectations. And their teachers and families and school leaders have worked even harder behind the scenes to make it all happen. And with President Biden’s goal to open K-8 schools for in-person learning, more changes are happening every day.

What is COVID Learning Loss?

Compared to last year, many more young children in first and second grade are below benchmarks in reading. That makes sense because there have been so many barriers, especially for young students, to getting consistent instruction. Children in under-resourced schools in the US (disproportionately children of color) are more likely to have experienced these instructional gaps. Data from Amplify Education, which publishes the DIBELS assessment, reports that 40% of first graders in 2020 are below the target scores for reading, compared to 27% of students at the same time last year. Yikes!

Add to that the immense social-emotional challenges many students have experienced this year. Kids are often away from their friends, dealing with changes in their parents’ work, in childcare arrangements, and in every other aspect of their life. Teens, especially, are often feeling lonely, struggling to work independently, or missing connections with their teachers and classmates.

Taking stock of where we are now

With a couple of months left in the school year, depending on where in the U.S. students are, things are still in flux. Schools are doing what they can to get kids into the classroom. Most public schools are preparing for some kind of mandated testing before the end of the school year. In some ways, we are far from the end of the school year. In other ways, summer break is coming up fast! That doesn’t leave enough time to make up for the rest of the year.Next year, schools will have to deal with kids starting the year behind where they usually are. Am I worried that “all the kids are falling behind?” I am not. For a lot of kids, this year will be barely a blip on the radar because there is such a flurry of research and funding and programs to support students.

I am worried that certain vulnerable populations of learners have slipped through the cracks, though. I worry about the youngest learners. I worry about kids with identified and unidentified learning challenges. I worry about kids who missed out on language experiences, social support, small group interventions, and meals in the last year, because they couldn’t be inside school buildings. I worry about teenagers who have been asked to be independent and responsible when their frontal lobes weren’t developed enough. I worry about kids who made transitions from one school to another without a gentle, welcoming, handoff. There is certainly work to do!

What should we do for kids who struggled?

So, what can be done for kids with COVID learning loss? Lots of big players in education, from districts themselves to teachers’ unions, are proposing summer programs. These offerings from the schools would help make up for lost classroom hours during the summer. For some students, these programs will be the boost they need. District programs like these often miss a segment of kids who need them, though. Especially those that need parents to drop kids off, or pick them up in hte middle of the day. 

Other experts are promoting individualized tutoring programs, like those that have been shown to be effective for children with dyslexia. If we can summon the manpower, an individualized tutoring program could be incredible. Even one run by quickly trained non-teachers or college students can give students an academic boost. 

One idea I keep hearing that I hate is extending the school year. Some places are talking about extending the 2020-21 school year, and others are talking about bring kids back earlier in the fall. I hate it because I don’t know a single teacher who is not close to his or her limit right now. When I taught special education, I declined to teach summer school with my students because I knew I had nothing new to offer them by June. I don’t think even the threat of COVID learning loss is more important than time for teachers to regroup and recharge for another intense school year. I think teachers need a break this summer and I would rather see them have top quality professional development and let some other people teach the kids for a while. But then again, no one’s going to ask me!

How my family is handling it

The only thing that’s up to me, really, is the plan for my family. My daughter has been in daycare and that’s where she will stay this summer. She’s been there all year in a pretty small daycare center. They have done a terrific job with the changing guidelines and keeping kids feeling comfortable and happy and learning in a really weird year. And her learning amazes me at least once a week!

For my kindergartner, we’ve chosen day camp for a great deal of the summer. We are prioritizing time outside, socializing with peers, and the type of hands-on learning experiences that distance learning couldn’t offer. There are some first-grade skills he needs to practice, certainly. On rainy days, weekends, and quiet times at home, I have a running list of things I’ll offer him: books, math practice, and definitely some writing. We’ll probably continue the kindergarten’s daily journal writing routine as well as keep using Epic Books for a steady stream of interesting ebooks, including some great read-aloud and audio titles that support his fluency and keep him busy with something that’s not a tv show!

I know that as an educator, I’m in a unique position and I feel comfortable planning and organizing all this stuff myself. Not all parents will. That’s why I’m expanding my offerings to include some groups this summer. We’re focusing on keeping kids reading, building connections through discussion, and supporting middle school reading and writing skills through groups on vocabulary and paragraph composition. If that sounds like what your child needs, check out the details here.

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