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How Pandemic-Related School Closures Could Cause Learning Loss

Michael Nutter

June 24, 2020

Time away from school can lead to significant learning loss for returning students. Combating learning loss due to pandemic-related school closures will require districts to start planning for the unique challenges of the forthcoming school year now.

Most people can agree that students and teachers alike need a summer break to avoid burnout. But how can students retain their course material over the summer, when a prolonged lack of instructional time will lead students to lose some of their progress? That’s the dilemma posed by summer learning loss — also known as the “summer slide.”

The extent of damage caused by the summer slide varies among studies. Some reports have estimated up to 30 percent learning loss over summer break, while others have found the consequences much more slight. According to a watershed 1996 meta analysis of summer learning loss published in the Review of Educational Research, students have lost an average of one month of course material by the time they return for fall semester.

Will There Be a “COVID-19 Slide?”

With education research backing the idea of a summer slide, there are some natural questions for educators and district officials to consider when it comes to adapting and adjusting to the circumstances of the pandemic. Most notably, how will extended school closures from the COVID-19 pandemic affect students’ performance and learning outcomes?

For districts across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has extended spring breaks into marathon summer breaks. To predict the potential impact of recent school closures on learning loss, Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) recently conducted a comprehensive study called “The COVID-19 Slide,” on the implications of an extra long summer break due to social distancing measures.

The results of NWEA’s study paint a potentially bleak picture of unprecedented levels of student learning loss during and after the 2019-2020 school year. Based on existing information about learning loss rates during summer break, NWEA concludes that COVID-19 related school closures could lead to an approximate 30 percent learning loss in reading, and a 50 percent learning loss in mathematics.

Preventing COVID-19 Learning Loss

To understand the ways districts can help combat the possible learning loss associated with COVID-19 school closures, it’s helpful to start by looking into how NWEA’s study was conducted. To begin, the report uses student achievement statistics based on MAP® Growth™ data to determine an aggregate outcome of summer learning loss. To apply their summer slide statistics to make a COVID-19 projection, NWEA extrapolates the average rate of summer slide at each grade level to create a prediction curve. This new curve attempts to answer the question: how much learning loss would occur if summer break began March 15 instead of June 15?

There are still a number of confounding variables that NWEA acknowledges, including the significant differences in summer learning loss between grade levels and various subject materials. For instance, students seem to experience more learning loss with math than with reading. This could be explained by the fact that students often continue reading during breaks, either alone or with their parents, which keeps them engaged with reading skills. Math, on the other hand, is rarely in students’ lives when school is out of session. This seems to align with the basic logic of the study itself — when we put a “pause” on education, students will gradually lose the progress they’ve made over the course of the year.

Overall, then, the NWEA study seems to confirm what is likely obvious to most educators. The most direct way districts can combat potential COVID-19 learning loss is to turn to alternative solutions that minimize the amount of time students spend without access to learning opportunities.

Combatting the COVID-19 Slide with Vinson

With the excessive length of school closure during the COVID-19 pandemic, summer learning loss is more of a concern this year than ever before. If the NWEA report is right, students could lose significant portions of their learning progress during the 2019-20 school year due to coronavirus-related school closures — on top of standard summer learning loss. So, how can educators and districts work to ensure their students stay on track despite the ongoing pandemic?

The good news is, modern technology helps provide some hope for minimizing the COVID-19 slide. Providing remote learning opportunities can be a highly effective way to combat learning loss during the era of social distancing. Attempting to reinstate potential existing summer programs remotely to combat learning loss may also help. Finally, districts may also consider working to get back on track by maximizing student achievement during the 2020-21 school year.

As administrators and teachers brainstorm how to make the most of the upcoming fall semester, they may need to double up their approach to high-achievement learning next year. To ensure that districts don’t miss a beat, it will be especially important this year for funding to be maximized to the best of each district’s ability.

Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS Reporting Software offers a comprehensive platform to record and report EMIS data with maximum efficiency and minimal errors. CheckPoint helps teachers and administrators alike to do away with spreadsheets and manual progress records, helping you ensure your district receives the maximum amount of funding possible to combat the COVID-19 slide. And while it may not yet be clear what the true impact of pandemic-related school closures will be, it’s not too early for educators and districts to prepare for the strongest school year possible when we’re all able to return to the classroom.

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