When Covid-19 began sweeping the country in March 2020, schools in every state closed. Distance learning has effectively become national policy for the remainder of this spring.
A few months later, however, school districts began to make different decisions about reopening. In much of the South and Great Plains as well as some pockets of the Northeast, schools resumed in-person classes in fall 2020. In much of the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast , school buildings remained closed and classes remained online for months.
These differences have created a huge experiment, testing how well remote learning works during the pandemic. University researchers have since studied the subject and they have come to a consistent conclusion: distance learning was a failure.
In today’s newsletter, I will cover this research as well as two related questions: How could the country help children make up for the losses? And should schools have reopened sooner – or were the closures a crucial part of the country’s Covid response?
A generational loss
Three times a year, millions of K-12 students in the United States take a test known as the MAP that measures their math and reading skills. A team of researchers from Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research used the MAP results to study apprenticeship for a period of two years from the fall of 2019, before the start of the pandemic.
Researchers divided students into different groups based on how long they spent attending an in-person school in 2020-21 — the school year with the greatest variation in when schools opened. On average, students who attended in-person school for most of 2020-2021 lost about 20% of a typical school year’s math learning over the study’s two-year window .
Some of those losses came from the time students spent learning remotely in the spring of 2020, when school buildings were almost universally closed. And some of the losses came from the difficulties of in-person schooling during the pandemic, as families dealt with disruption and illness.
But students who stayed home for most of 2020-21 fared much worse. On average, they lost the equivalent of about 50% of a typical school year’s math learning over the study’s two-year window.
“We saw in this recent study how big the gaps are,” Roberto Rodríguez, assistant secretary in President Biden’s education department, told me.
The results are consistent with other studies. “It’s pretty clear that distance schooling wasn’t good for learning,” said Emily Oster, a Brown University economist and co-author of another such study. As Matthew Chingos, an Urban Institute expert, puts it: “Students learned less if their school was remote than they would have in person.”
One of the most alarming findings is that school closures have deepened economic and racial inequalities in learning. In Monday’s newsletter, I told you about the progress made by K-12 education in the United States in the 1990s and early 2000s: math and reading skills improved, especially for black and Latino students.
The Covid shutdowns have reversed much of that progress, at least for now. Low-income students, as well as black and Latino students, have fallen further behind in the past two years compared to high-income, white or Asian students. “This will likely be the biggest increase in education inequality in a generation,” Thomas Kane, author of the Harvard study, told me.
There are two main reasons. First, schools with large numbers of poor students were more likely to drop out.
Second, low-income students tended to fare even worse when schools moved away. They may not have had reliable internet access, a quiet room to work in, or a parent who could take time off work to help with problems.
Together, these factors mean the school closures were what economists call a regressive policy, widening inequality by hurting groups that were already vulnerable the most.
A catch-up effort
Congress has tried to address learning loss by allocating about $190 billion to schools through pandemic bailout bills. That’s over $3,500 for the average K-12 student in a public school.
Rodríguez, the Education Ministry official, said he was encouraged by how the schools were using the money. One proven strategy is known as high-dose tutoring, he noted. Sessions can involve three or four students, receiving at least half an hour of focused instruction a few times a week.
Kane is more concerned about how schools use federal money. He thinks many spend a significant chunk of it on non-academic programs, like new technology. “I’m concerned that even though school agencies are planning a range of remedial activities, their plans just aren’t commensurate with the losses,” he said.
By the time schools realize that many students are falling far behind, federal money may be gone.
what could have been
Were many of these problems preventable? The evidence suggests they were. Extended school closures seem to have done far more harm than good, and many school administrators probably could have recognized that by the fall of 2020.
In places where schools reopened this summer and fall, the spread of Covid was not noticeably worse than in places where schools remained closed. Schools have also reopened in parts of Europe without appearing to trigger outbreaks.
In October 2020, Oster wrote an article in The Atlantic titled “Schools are not superbroadcasters“, and she told me this week that the evidence was pretty clear even earlier. major new risks.
The Washington Post recently profiled a Colorado district where schools quickly reopened, noting that no children were hospitalized and many were thriving. “We wanted it to be as normal as possible,” said school board president Chris Taylor.
Hundreds of other districts, especially in liberal communities, have instead closed schools for a year or more. Officials said they were doing this to protect children and especially the most vulnerable children. The effect, however, was often the opposite.
Over the past two years, the United States has suffered two very different Covid problems. Many Americans have under-reacted to the pandemic, refusing to take life-saving vaccines. Many others have overreacted, ignoring the large and unequal costs of allowing Covid to dominate daily life for months on end.
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