COVID’s Impact on Learning

Find out how COVID impacted our kids' education and get tips on how parents can support their kids when they return to school.

The 2020 and 2021 school years were like no other. As virtual spaces and hybrid learning solutions replaced the traditional classroom environment, there was major concern about the impact of learning loss on students — both academically and from a social-emotional perspective.

“We were right to initially panic because schooling in America is essential to the fabric of the community,” says Marie Donovan, associate professor of Teacher Education and program director of Early Childhood Education at DePaul University in Chicago. “Schools not only educate the cognitive part of us, but also our social and emotional selves. You learn to be a citizen of the world while you are in school.”

Research is constantly changing

Early research by the nonprofit NWEA found that students’ reading growth was like non-pandemic years, but lower in math. A December 2020 study commissioned by McKinsey & Company put students an average of four to eight months behind grade level. Current research is a bit more encouraging, showing that students did, in fact, make progress during COVID-19.

“We will still be looking at this data for years to come. All of the findings should be viewed in the context of when they were happening and who is being assessed,” says Elizabeth Birr Moje, dean and professor at the University of Michigan School of Education. “It is difficult to make claims of whether students have or haven’t learned as a result of the current assessments being done.”

Birr Moje says we shouldn’t be surprised that students are still learning.

“We haven’t locked them in closets,” she says. “Just because they aren’t in school doesn’t mean they aren’t learning. Learning can happen in many places, ways and formats.”

Federal assistance

Learning loss has also become a focus at the federal level, as the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill signed by President Joe Biden on March 11 requires states to spend at least 5% of their budgets to address learning loss, and public school districts 20% of their funding to address it. Schools can use the money for education technology, mental health services and summer or after-school programs, among others.

The bill also provides $100 million to the Institute of Education Sciences to study learning loss in more depth.

These allocations represent the largest, single federal outlay on K-12 education in U.S. history.

M-STEP impact

Currently up in the air is the M-STEP standardized test, which is a statewide mandate that third graders be reading at grade level or they will be held back. Educators and parents are increasingly concerned about giving standardized tests amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Birr Moje says although the mandate hasn’t been reversed (as of press time), she encourages parents to talk to their classroom teachers, administration and school district about their concerns to opt-out of the testing or request a different type of assessment.

How parents can support their kids

During summer

Birr Moje suggests parents reframe the term “learning loss” with “learning opportunity loss” to not place the burden on the students. She says that when we shift our thinking, society can give students the support they need to move forward.

“We want to make sure we aren’t putting kids in drill skill programs because we are so worried about catching them up for the next test,” she says. “Having children sitting at desks doing worksheets will not help anyone. Instead, let’s advocate for powerful, engaging opportunities for children.”

Some of these opportunities, she says, include putting children in summer camps and petitioning schools for hands-on programs that allow students to do something productive as a society.

“Children need to be given opportunities to interact with other children and be social beings again,” she says. “It’s time to move away from devices.”

Educational consultant Gary Abud Jr. says when deciding if you need to be concerned about your child’s educational progress, or whether you need to take action to prepare your child for school, it’s always best to start by talking to your child’s teacher.

“You can find out what they would suggest and get an accurate read on where they feel your child is at with their current learning level,” Abud says. “They’ll have a good sense of whether or not you need to be concerned, how you can help and what your child might need to do over the summer to position them well for what’s coming next in school.”

Abud suggests a few practical ideas to help younger learners, including reading to and reading with your child daily, focus on fact fluency for math (addition, subtraction and multiplication flashcards), and help your child’s social/emotional development by choosing activities you can do safely where you’ll get to learn and explore together.

Returning to school

 Due to the pandemic, children may feel a loss of connection to their peers and begin to feel not good enough when they return, says Veronica Ursetto, owner and therapist at Integrative Perspectives Counseling and Consulting PC. As a result, she says children may start to develop more isolative behavior, such as pulling away from friendships and possibly being scared to return to school.

Heather Rosenberg sent her second and fifth graders back to school in January and March.

“I think they had some anxiety going back into the classroom where other children had been for the first part of the school year,” says the West Bloomfield-area mom. “Otherwise, they were excited to go see their friends and all of their teachers live in person.”

Rosenberg notes that after nearly a year at home, her children desperately needed the peer-to-peer relationships at school.

“The sibling dynamic is very different than peer-to-peer relationships,” she says. “The kids weren’t behaving at home likely because they were bored and isolated.”

As a result, the Rosenberg family decided there was enough evidence to support the lack of spread of COVID-19 within schools that are following proper protocols.

“The girls’ social, emotional and mental health needed to be prioritized, which was a major deciding factor in sending them back,” Rosenberg says.

From a social-emotional perspective, as parents prepare to send their kids back to school like Rosenberg did, Ursetto has helpful tips. She recommends creating a schedule to let your children see what days they’ll be home and what days they’ll be in school, and to remind your child, no matter his or her age, that it’s OK to be worried, scared or even miss you.

“Embrace the challenge of returning to school by supporting your child taking a chance and reminding them of the skills they have,” Ursetto says.

“What separates failure from success can be as simple as a reframe that we have an opportunity for growth.”

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Lori Orlinsky
Lori Orlinsky
Lori Orlinsky is an award-winning journalist and bestselling children's book author. She is the mom of three little ladies who keep her on her toes.


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