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We just got the most comprehensive study of pandemic learning loss

Bad news, but there’s still time to fix it.

Students walk along the sidewalk beside a school bus in front of a school.
Students walk in front of Cramer Hill Elementary in Camden, New Jersey.
Courtesy of Mastery Schools of Camden

In March 2020, schools across the country switched to remote learning due to the pandemic. But they didn’t all switch back to in-person learning at the same time. Now, we’re starting to get a clearer picture of the impact of those decisions on students.

Thomas Kane, faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, is part of a team that recently released the broadest analysis of pandemic learning loss to date. They crunched data from over 2 million students across 10,000 elementary and middle schools.

One of their biggest findings: the speed at which schools returned to in-person learning was the key factor in how far students fell behind. “In schools that remained in-person throughout 2021, students lost ground, but they lost about seven to 10 weeks of instruction. In school districts that were remote for more than half of 2021, students in high-poverty schools in those districts lost the equivalent of 22 weeks of instruction, so more than half a year,” Kane tells Today, Explained host Sean Rameswaram in this episode.

To understand how the pandemic impacted America’s kids, Today, Explained — Vox’s daily news explainer podcast — reported on Cramer Hill Elementary School in Camden, New Jersey, throughout the past academic year. In October 2021 the show covered how difficult it was for school staff to balance making up learning loss and keeping kids safe. In December 2021, they explored the challenges of vaccinating kids. And in June of 2022, the show returned one last time for the eighth-grade class’s graduation. It was a triumphant capstone to a year defined by the students’ struggle to make up academic and social deficits created by the pandemic.

You can listen to the final episode in Today, Explained’s series on Cramer Hill Elementary below — or wherever you find podcasts. A partial transcript of Sean Rameswaram’s conversation with Thomas Kane, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Sean Rameswaram

What were your takeaways?

Thomas Kane

We found that even in parts of the country where schools did not shut down, students lost ground. Remember, everybody went remote in spring of 2020. And we see that that achievement slowed down even in places that went back to in-person pretty quickly. However, in places where schools remained remote for more than half of 2021, there were much larger losses, especially for students attending high-poverty schools.

In the areas where students remained in-person for 2021, students lost ground. But there was no widening of gaps between Black and white students, between high-poverty and low-poverty schools. Everybody lost about the same amount. But in areas that went remote for more than half of 2021, achievement gaps widened pretty dramatically between high-poverty and low-poverty schools, between Blacks and whites, between whites and Hispanics.

Sean Rameswaram

How exactly do you measure that?

Thomas Kane

When we say students lost ground, I’m not literally saying people forgot how to do algebra or forgot how to read. It was that they didn’t grow as much in algebra or math, and they didn’t grow as much in reading as we would expect them to grow. Students are learning all the time. It’s just that they learn much faster when school is in-person.

Sean Rameswaram

So even if the schools were remote for comparable periods of time, lower-income families did worse. Is that right?

Thomas Kane

Kids in high-poverty schools lost the equivalent of about 22 weeks of instruction if their schools were remote for half the year or more. And students in low-poverty schools, or higher-income students, lost ground, too. But rather than 22 weeks, they lost about 13 weeks … It was almost as if we flipped a switch on a critical part of our social infrastructure. Where schools stayed open, gaps did not widen; where schools closed, gaps widened dramatically. Horace Mann used to argue that schools are the balance wheel of the social machinery. I think we got a chance to see that.

Sean Rameswaram

What can schools do now to make up for what’s been lost?

Thomas Kane

Well, I know everybody is eager to get back to normal, but I hope people recognize that normal is not going to be enough. Based on our calculations, virtually every student in the high-poverty schools that were remote for half the year of 2021 would need a tutor in order to catch up. The logistically least challenging option, but which is politically the least popular option, would be extending the school year over the next couple of years and then paying teachers, you know, time and a half, or [adding to] school bus drivers and other school staff pay. Make it worth people’s while to teach the additional time. School districts have the dollars through this federal aid that they’ve received over the last couple of years. And we just need to be thinking about what’s the scale of effort that’s going to be required to help students catch up.

Sean Rameswaram

How long do schools have to fix this?

Thomas Kane

Over the course of the pandemic, schools have received about $190 billion in federal aid, and much of that money is currently unspent. School districts have until the end of 2024 to spend those dollars. … We need to start planning for interventions far beyond the scale that most districts are currently contemplating. ... We should be talking now about things like extending the school year at the end of next year. Not in the next few weeks, but at the end of next year. If we gave teachers and parents enough time to plan ahead, it is a challenge we could all take on. My sense — my fear — though, is people are underestimating the scale of the effort that’s going to be required to help students catch up.

Listen to previous episodes in the series:

How do you do, fellow kids? | October 21, 2021

School’s been back for a month. Today, Explained spent a month checking in with Cramer Hill Elementary to find out how it’s going.

Are you vaxxed, fellow kids? | December 8, 2021

Today, Explained returns to Cramer Hill Elementary School to explore the challenges of vaccinating children against Covid-19.

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