The Lost Spring of 2020: When Schools Reopen, How Will Students Catch Up?

Some students are continuing to learn while school doors are closed, but others may not be able to avoid losing ground.
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Joel Shurkin, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Schools were one of the first things closed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, throwing virtually all 55 million U.S. students from kindergarten to 12th grade out of their classrooms. With no end to the pandemic in clear sight, education researchers are studying what effects a long-term closure would have on student learning.

For many students, says the study, the effects will be considerable.

A recent paper by researchers at Brown University in Rhode Island, the University of Virginia and the nonprofit educational organization NWEA showed that if the average student is admitted back to school in the fall, they'll return with only 63%-68% of their expected gains from the 2019-2020 school year in language arts and 37%-50% of their expected gains in math.

The researchers call it the COVID Slide.

Some students will be able to rebound without much difficulty. Other students will have a harder time recovering their "lost spring."

The paper posits that students in the top third of their class may have continued to show gains in reading during the extended school closure. Other students have lost the equivalent of an entire year of instruction during the 2019-2020 school year, particularly in math.

How each student reenters formal, in-person schooling will depend on multiple factors.

During the pandemic-related closings, students who are from low-income communities, or ordinarily attend schools without good electronic access or teachers with online teaching experience, are more likely to do worse than the top 30% students who normally have those benefits.

During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, not all schools were closed, with educators feeling the kids were safer at school than not. Most schools that did close opened within about 15 weeks. Today, many students have the benefit of electronics and the internet. However, the closure this time will be much longer.

The researchers had to rely on metrics and information from recent decades to make estimates regarding the educational consequences of the current school closures.

Extrapolating from the past is difficult in this situation, the researchers admitted. “While many aspects of the pandemic make anticipating its impact on achievement difficult,” they wrote, “there are parallels between the current situation and other planned and unplanned reasons for which students miss school that can help us quantify the potential scale of the COVID-19 impact.” This included snow days, summer vacation, plain absenteeism, and natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or the 2016 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, which closed schools for days or at worst, weeks.

“We had to make a lot of assumptions,” said lead author Megan Kuhfeld. The events in the past can give “some sense” to what may happen if schools are able to reopen with traditional hours and capacity in the fall. However, relying on past precedent may overstate the effects. The researchers did not account for virtual instruction that many students received during the last months of the 2019-2020 school year, she said.

The NWEA used standardized tests to record the achievement of 5 million students in grades 3 to 7 in 2017-2018 and then matched it to the other instances of unplanned absences and extrapolated from there.

The tests used were comparable year to year and region to region, she said.

This spring, most schools developed or activated plans for online learning and remote teaching.

Some of those online teaching programs may not be as effective as many thought they would be. Many teachers have little or no individual contact with their students and contacts with parents is also limited.

Economic status makes a difference, they found. It's difficult for some students to obtain access to the internet at home.

The researchers project that, on average, students in low-income ZIP codes may already have lost half of what they would have learned by late April had schools been open.

“There is huge variation across districts in what they’re able and willing to provide,“ said Seth Gershenson, associate professor of public policy at American University in Washington, D.C.

“Some districts explicitly forbid their teachers from doing online learning precisely because they didn’t want to exacerbate inequalities," he said, in part because not all schools have had equal abilities to transition to online teaching.

Also, it’s still not clear how well students learn during online teaching versus a classroom situation when students and teachers interact in the same room, the researchers wrote.

The study found that the home environment is also important. Some students have homes with the resources to adapt to home schooling, including desk space, access to the internet, a quiet place to do homework and a parent available at home, he said. Gershenson also said his worries focus on the “differential loss” across households and communities, especially between wealthy and poor communities.

In fact, in cases where parents have the skills and resources to guide or supervise instruction, they may find that some children do better academically than if they were in school, the NWEA researchers found.

Finally, Gershenson said there was also a stress factor simply from the disruption the pandemic is causing in daily living. The kids can’t go visit their friends, everyone is wearing a mask, parents are losing jobs, and the television is broadcasting death tolls.

It's difficult to use information from closures or snow days to model the effects of closing schools earlier this year, and there's no single plan for opening in the fall, let alone a cohesive approach to addressing the lost time upon a return to classrooms.

But the overall effect will be substantial. The loss of instruction could affect the lives of students who do not catch up, said Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who was not involved in this research.

“Lots of rigorous studies show that a couple of good teachers will follow you all your life,” Balfaz said. Missing large chunks of instructional time, he said, "might follow you too.”

Author Bio & Story Archive

Joel Shurkin is a freelance writer in Baltimore who has also taught journalism and science writing.