Learning loss and recovery in K-12 education

June 3, 2021

Bow Young Kim

A year into the COVID19 pandemic, the United States is facing several crises that have arisen from prolonged isolation, uncertainty and fear. Nationwide, K-12 schools pivoted to virtual and hybrid instruction, exposing racial and economic inequalities alongside the challenges of remote learning. Reopening schools safely is now priority number one, and many leaders are advocating for systemic changes to educational standards. With every crisis comes the opportunity to transform our systems. This article will focus on pandemic-related learning loss and recovery for students nationwide. 

Causes of learning loss 

Learning loss is defined as “any specific or general loss of knowledge and skills or to reversals in academic progress, most commonly due to extended gaps or discontinuities in a student’s education.”  Summer breaks, ineffective teaching or course scheduling, school absences or disruptions in formal education are all major culprits. However, the pandemic has now been added to the list of reasons students experience learning loss.  

When schools turned to remote learning during the federal and state mandated quarantines in 2020, one of the main challenges was solving the technological inequity for students who come from low income households. Not all students have access to a high speed internet connection or computers, so many school districts purchased equipment for their students and partnered with internet companies to make sure learners had access to the internet.   

Since disruptions in formal education are one of the leading reasons for learning loss, it follows that students not engaging with their virtual learning coursework fall behind. Lack of virtual attendance and classwork submission only highlight the communication issue between students and teachers. Every relationship requires 2-way communication, and if one party is not responding, communication breaks down.  

So what are school districts doing to combat this pattern? Many schools have ramped up their communication with families, and for some schools this has led to stronger, more involved parent teacher associations. For other schools, it is a struggle to get families involved with organizational change and virtual learning.  

Especially for younger students in elementary schools, parents are struggling to provide adequate academic and socioemotional support to their children. The limited daycare options for parents who work from home and who are essential workers has only added to the complexity and frustration of virtual learning. With the sudden shift in roles and added responsibilities, many parents, especially women, have left the workforce due to long-term school closures.  

Ineffective teaching is another reason for learning loss. Some argue that there is a lack of rigor in virtual learning, while others argue that there is too much screen time and too many assignments. It is a challenge for teachers to accurately collect and assess students’ work during the pandemic. Since students in all grade levels have experienced a disruption in their routines, it is hard to discern how much students are learning. 

Several factors that make it difficult to gauge students’ performance are:  

  1. External help. How much help are students getting from parents, siblings or tutors? Are students truly understanding their assignments? Can students work autonomously and think critically about their strengths and weaknesses?  
  1. Social interaction. Children and teenagers are social learners and the lack of interaction with friends has caused a spike in children’s anxiety and depression. Even for students who showed consistent motivation before the pandemic, the shift to online learning has triggered even these students to struggle. Fear, sadness, anxiety and isolation have a significant impact on how students’ academic performance.  
  1. Grading. Inconsistency in grading and standardized tests throughout the pandemic show how challenging it is to maintain standards for each grade level. Are schools getting an accurate overview of students’ progress and performance? Are students overwhelmed and falling behind as they try to keep up?  

 

Assessments and accountability  

Depending on the school’s virtual learning style, instruction and peer socialization differ. Some teachers facilitate classes with breakout rooms for students to work together, while others use traditional lectures where students are more passive. Methods that are simple in person, such as turn-and-talk, are harder to implement online as they require teachers to prepare platforms in advance. In general, teachers are supporting students by considering their individual situations, offering one-on-one or small group check ins and being flexible about grading policies.   

Communication and collaboration form the core of relationship building. Though virtual learning has made it more challenging to connect, many educators are providing their classes with daily opening and closing circles to replicate in-person discussions on life both in and outside the classroom. Virtual community building is possible, but it depends on how teachers and students present themselves in those spaces.  

What is being done at the district level 

Some districts have hired educational technology coaches to support teachers. For this reason, professional development may be changing as school districts require new skills and knowledge to teach.   

As schools reopen, administrators will need to plan for the logistical challenges of creating safe and healthy learning environments for students and faculty. Administrators need to increase their budget to cover the unique needs of our time to include:  

  • extra cleaning supplies 
  • extra technology and resources to facilitate in-person and hybrid models 
  • reliable schoolwide internet and back-up hotspots 
  • more staff to aid instruction and provide socioemotional support 

Administrators will need to accurately report their school’s performance during the pandemic. Even for struggling students, context is key in understanding students’ authentic skills. If students are completing work and passing their classes because of extra assistance from a family member or tutor, what does that assistance look like? If parents, siblings or tutors are helping, it is important to reassess students’ academic skills in real time regardless of students’ current grades during the pandemic. Grades are not reflective of students’ overall abilities and administrators should rethink standards, testing environments and grading approaches as they work to create more equitable schools.  

Administrators and stakeholders need to decide how growth will be measured and create plans for students who have experienced pandemic-related learning losses. Some suggestions are as follows:  

  1. Partner with organizations and businesses that provide additional tutoring, mental health support and technology support. 
  1. Provide professional development training for teachers to navigate the specific challenges of teaching in the 21st century.  
  1. Address digital equity, diversity and inclusive practices directly.  
  1. Rethink school schedules to allow families flexibility if they wish to continue virtual or hybrid learning. For students attending school in person, smaller class sizes are critical to adhere to CDC recommendations. High schools could try to replicate college schedules and incorporate internships and job-specific training for several hours a week.  
  1. Communicate with families. It is common for teachers to reach out to students who are struggling, but it is equally important to stay in contact with successful students’ families. 
  1. Make grading and testing equitable. Nationwide standards have always been controversial as most standardized tests do not represent students’ varied skills and abilities. K-12 administrators need to have conversations with university administrators about creating pathways for students to successfully pursue higher education.  

Will colleges and universities make adjustments to their admissions policies to account for pandemic-related learning losses? Higher universities should account for the social and academic learning gaps in their student body, especially for the freshman class of 2021.  

Vaccination rollout and government funding 

Vaccine availability and eligibility varies by state but teachers and staff members are now eligible in most states. With the $1.9 trillion economic rescue package, help is coming to public schools, state health departments, essential businesses and more.  

Managing daily school operations is a logistical challenge. According to CDC, stakeholders will need to make a comprehensive plan for the following:   

  • masks in schools and child care programs 
  • screening students and staff for symptoms 
  • cleaning, disinfection and hand hygiene 

How will schools make sure that learning environments are safe for all students? Will they implement more social justice and anti-racism practices into the curricula? If so, how will that look and who will oversee those decisions? Social justice is about envisioning a world that is inclusive for all regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality. We need to challenge our biases of ourselves and others. As students develop their identities and worldviews, leaders need to have conversations about how to lead the nation’s K-12 schools to be inclusive and equitable.  

By creating safe learning environments and providing vaccinations for all, students and teachers will be better equipped to recover from the pandemic.  

The road to recovery 

There is no doubt that the pandemic has had a profound impact. With every crisis, however, comes opportunities to reflect and make changes. Some students have managed successfully through these difficult times while others have struggled. Though schools cannot provide solutions to every problem in society, educators can influence young minds and leave positive, lasting impact.  

This era of students are generation Z. Born into a digitally driven world, Gen Z are tech-savvy from a young age and easily adapt to the changes brought on by the pandemic. Although students are more interconnected than ever, it is important that they and their families reinforce healthy technology use. Cyberbullying and excessive screen time negatively affect mental and physical health and students need to be taught how to be responsible for their digital footprints to protect themselves.  

Schools are also responsible for addressing cyberbullying and other social media misconduct. Communicating expectations with students and their families and reinforcing rules will be critical for all K-12 schools. The road to recovery won’t happen overnight, but educators must advocate for changes in the current system in order to support all learners. An equitable and accessible education is possible. We cannot go back to the pre-COVID days with the same unsolved problems. We must change for the better and transform education.  

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