‘Education’s Long COVID’: New Data Shows Recovery Stalled for Most Students

The study, based on assessment results from 6.7 million students, shows that learning disruptions due to the pandemic are far from over.

In a perfect world, the effects of COVID-19 on students’ learning would end once in-person schooling resumed, but a new study by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) says that just isn’t the case. 

The study, dubbed Education’s Long COVID, was released in July and incited discussions on the serious, ongoing effects of the learning disruptions caused by COVID. The data for the study come from the roughly 6.7 million students in grades 3-8 in public schools who are tested through the NWEA® MAP® Growth™ assessments. 

Some of the most dramatic data from the study are the comparisons in reading growth in grades 6 through 8. Students tested during the 2022-23 school year had worse reading growth rates compared to pre-pandemic testing: 6th graders are 19% below average, 7th graders are 16% below average and 8th graders are 18% below average. 

“The most notable departure from pre-pandemic trends is evident in the upper grades in reading,” the study says. “Reading gains for these grades were also furthest below average in 2021–22.” 

Despite reading growth rates being lower for some students, it’s math that will require more time for all students to catch up. 

“At the end of the 2022–23 school year, across all grade levels, the average student will require the equivalent of 4.1 months of additional schooling to catch up to pre-COVID levels in reading and 4.5 months in math,” the study says.

Nichole Austion, vice president of marketing communications and government relations at the National Math and Science Initiative and a Black woman in STEM and engineering, says she and her colleagues are actively working to lessen the negative effects of the learning disruptions caused by COVID.

“COVID was a pivotal moment for education in the United States,” Austion says. “We really were disturbed by the slide that we saw.” 

“Our organization is really dedicated to helping educators be more effective in the classroom by providing them with deep content knowledge, fundamental pedagogy and also community – community is one of our big tenants,” she adds. 

Austion says that another focus for the organization is helping those students who are already farthest from opportunity through accessible and equitable education. This work is especially salient as more and more research shows that the pandemic did not affect students equally

The study also includes a major finding in how learning disruptions have had different effects across race and ethnicity. 

The study includes context for this inclusion: “We recognize that focusing on differences across race and ethnicity groups can have negative implications, as it can perpetuate a deficit-oriented perspective that blames students and fails to recognize academic strengths, which may not be accurately reflected in standardized metrics.” 

“At the same time, it is crucial to disaggregate outcomes by race and ethnicity to shine light on the profound inequities existing within our education system,” they add. “Those inequalities were stark before the pandemic and have only widened dramatically over the last three years.” 

The study uses a metric of the number of months needed to “catch up” to pre-pandemic testing levels. 

For the average Hispanic middle schooler, it would take roughly 6.7 months to catch up in reading, both Black and White middle schoolers would need 4.9 months and Asian middle schoolers would need 1.4 months. 

The amount of time needed for middle schoolers to catch up in math didn’t vary as widely: Hispanic students would need 6.4 months, Black students would need 6.2 months, White students would need 5.3 months and Asian students would need 4.3 months. 

There’s an important note for this data, however. The number that those students would be “catching up to” is not the same across different racial and ethnic groups – it’s based on the pre-pandemic status quo which is “an already significantly inequitable state of academic achievement,” says the study. 

Groups like the National Math and Science Initiative have worked to offer COVID resources for educators and have committed themselves to training teachers in the most effective ways possible to better serve students’ holistic needs and help all students. 

While training educators on the specific needs of students post-COVID is paramount, there’s another piece to helping students during these years: their parents. 

As a mom of a 14-year-old, Austion says she is lucky to be able to provide her son with extra tutoring and other learning support. 

Small changes like putting in the effort to personalize learning can help kids want to learn. Austion’s son loves Fortnite, and sometimes she’ll throw him a math problem based on the game. 

“It’s all about teachable moments, and about what they’re interested in right now and also providing culturally relevant education,” she says. “One of my son’s math teachers gave them a word problem about Lebron James.” 

For parents who might not be able to whip up math problems on the spot (like Austion, who has a degree in engineering from Howard University) don’t be discouraged. The Global Fund for Children says even taking an interest in their school work can have positive effects

In the sea of negative outcomes, there might still be one upside from all of this: “Parents may have gained a greater appreciation for teachers,” says Austion. 

“I just feel like as a nation we definitely have to bring back some of the respect as these teachers train our nation’s students – greater support, greater salaries and greater professional development for these men and women spending a great deal of time teaching.”

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Amanda Rahn
Amanda Rahn
Amanda Rahn is a freelance journalist, copy editor and proud Detroiter. She is a graduate of Wayne State University’s journalism school and of the Columbia Publishing Course at Oxford University. Amanda is a lover of translated contemporary fiction, wines from Jura and her dog, Lottie.


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