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Pandemic Learning Loss is Real: Here’s Why Parents Don’t Need to Freak Out

After being guinea pigs in the Great Education Experiment of 2020 (i.e., remote learning), parents, teachers and students all breathed a collective sigh of relief (into their masks, of course) when in-person learning finally returned. To no one’s surprise, the remote learning model was kind of a shit show. So what did we learn from the experience? Well, we learned that living rooms make poor classrooms, parents are subpar teachers and teachers can’t hold the attention of kids over video chat. What’s more, the results of the experiment are trickling in, and the data suggests that students are still paying the price for the time they spent in a virtual classroom—namely because of what they didn’t learn.

Yep, pandemic learning loss is a real thing. We reviewed the statistics and spoke to Pamela Roggeman, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Phoenix to get the full scoop on how pandemic learning loss is affecting kids and what parents can do about it. (Spoiler: With a little first aid, it is correctable.)

What is pandemic learning loss?

Pandemic learning loss refers to the fact that kids who shifted to remote or hybrid learning during the height of the pandemic made less academic progress than they would have in a classroom (and less than peers who did have in-person learning during the same period). And yes, it is a fact.

A study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of Dutch students in grades 4-8 found evidence that students in this age range learned significantly less during lockdown than in a typical year in all three subject areas they looked at (math, reading and spelling) and that “losses were up to 60% larger among students from less-educated homes.” (Note: The Netherlands was considered to be a “best-case scenario, due to the country’s short school closures, high degree of technological preparedness and equitable school funding.”)

Another, more thorough study conducted by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University found that students in high-poverty areas were hit the hardest by pandemic loss; they also found a direct correlation between the time students spent learning remotely and how far they fell behind academically across all socioeconomic groups. The kids most affected by pandemic learning loss were up to half a year behind where they would have been otherwise.

Who was most affected by pandemic learning loss?

As previously mentioned, students in high-poverty school districts were disproportionately affected by pandemic learning loss—a disturbing revelation that indicates a widening of the achievement gap along socioeconomic lines. In general, students age K-3 were also hit particularly hard—namely because “that group needed the most help with virtual learning and their learning was dependent on if the parent had the time, technology, and resources (the more children at home, the fewer individual resources),” explains Roggeman.

What does pandemic learning loss look like?

Statistics aside, you might be wondering how you can recognize signs of pandemic learning loss in your own child. Per Roggeman, teachers have now coined the informal label, “Covid Kids” to refer to a litany of issues in students of all ages that teachers are now addressing. The list includes:

  1. Early elementary kids who do not know all of their letters or sight words.
  2. New behavior issues because students did not have the Social Emotional Learning that each year builds upon. An example of this is that some incoming freshmen never had a “normal, ongoing” junior high or middle school experience, so they are not familiar with things like not having a homeroom teacher, passing periods, managing their own schedules, behaving at the maturity level that was previously expected, etc.
  3. Issues with speaking and listening skills that kids acquire in a whole group setting.
  4. A larger number of students who have not been exposed to or mastered the previous year’s standards and, thus require more precious academic time relearning what they should have already learned.

How parents can help kids recover from pandemic learning loss

If you notice your child is struggling in ways they didn’t used to—be it because of new attention-related or social-emotional issues, or just the subject matter itself—it’s important to take action. Here’s what the expert suggests:

1. Pay attention

Roggeman emphasizes that parents know their children better than anyone else, which is why it’s so important for them to be on the lookout for any new school behavior in their kid. Examples include procrastinating on a writing project when that was never a problem in the past, having to reach out more frequently to friends for help with homework, expressing feelings of discomfort or embarrassment when it comes to asking questions or approaching the teacher (and the list goes on).

2. If you see something, say something

Once you have noticed an issue, don’t waste any time reaching out to the teacher, as this will help them get to know your child. “Talk about what you are seeing and how your child has historically fared in the classroom. And then, STAY connected to your child’s teacher. Ask for evidence of progress. Ask how you can support your child at home," Roggeman urges.

Ultimately, the task of helping kids recover from pandemic learning loss requires a coordinated effort from parents and teachers. For this reason, Roggeman recommends that parents make it their business to know what goes on in the classroom, so long as they do so in a way that doesn’t come across as accusatory or punitive.

3. Create a supportive learning environment at home

We’re all grateful that our kids are no longer spending the school day on Zoom calls at a makeshift desk in the living room…but the home environment makes a big difference, nevertheless. Roggeman says that parents can demonstrate how much they support their child’s academic life in simple ways, like by turning off the TV when it’s homework time, encouraging physical activity and play time when a kid needs to take a brain break and otherwise helping kids manage their stress by keeping school demands in perspective.

4. Read, read, read

One more suggestion from the expert, and an emphatic one at that: “Keep your child READING. Reading improves achievement across the board.” Roger that.

The takeaway

Pandemic learning loss is real, yes—and there’s a good chance you might be seeing the symptoms of it in your own child. That said, the lapse in academic growth is not a permanent condition, says Roggeman: “Just as with any healing, this too can be overcome. Expect this healing to take a bit of time, and not all kids will recover at the same pace, but heal they will.”