Coronavirus Could Cause A 'Learning Loss' Crisis. Here's How Bad It Could Get — And What To Do About It

A student receives a laptop computer for remote learning in front of L.A. Unified's Bell High School. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

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Stephanie Montalbo's daughter is an honor-roll student — definitely "not the falling-behind type of kid," her mom said — who's always been diligent about turning in assignments, even during the coronavirus pandemic.

That said, keeping up in school has been tough. Montalbo doesn't own a computer. The public libraries Montalbo relied on for computer access are closed. A smartphone works fine for Zoom classes, but it's not suited for schoolwork.

So for the first two months of distance learning, Montalbo's eighth grader had to do her homework on laptops borrowed from a neighbor and from relatives. (She's since gotten a loaner computer from the L.A. Unified School District.)

"She is not behind," Montalbo said of her daughter, "but it's just a struggle, and I hate to see her struggling to get schoolwork done ...

"We make sure it gets done," she added. "But it's a struggle."


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A LONG SUMMER — OR A NATURAL DISASTER?

We need to brace ourselves for the possibility that the coronavirus pandemic will knock thousands of California children measurably behind in school, perhaps for years.

This is a warning that a range of officials — from local school district leaders up to Gov. Gavin Newsom — have been repeating since March. Though these officials have launched massive, expensive and unprecedented programs to keep kids on track, many admit these efforts won't work.

Concerns about learning loss will likely help California school districts determine whether to reopen campuses in the fall. This week, Los Angeles Unified School District officials said learning loss would be a driving factor in their forthcoming reopening decision — right alongside health and safety considerations.

"For some [students] ... there may be a lifelong impact if they are not back in school sometime soon," Superintendent Austin Beutner said.

And academic experts say there's good reason for officials to fear COVID-19 school closures will cause a "learning loss" crisis, especially for children whose parents aren't employed, healthy, housed or connected to the internet.

David Quinn, an assistant professor at the USC Rossier School of Education, puts it this way: For vulnerable students, "the impact could be closer to something like we see from more broad natural disasters, like Katrina."

Katrina, as in Hurricane Katrina. Five years after that disaster, a long-term study found one-third of the students uprooted from their home schools were still at least one year behind in school.

Fourth-grader Miriam Amacker does school work in her room at her family's home in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

But for other kids — perhaps students in more stable situations — Quinn said the coronavirus's effect on their academic progress will be much less severe: "More akin to a lengthy summer vacation." Some students might even thrive during the shutdowns.

And while California schools could be facing sharp state budget cuts, experts say educators and state policymakers need to make triaging students based on their levels of learning loss a budgetary priority.

"Knowing there's going to be this huge variation, we need to have a way of being able to diagnose what each student needs," said Heather Hough, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), a non-partisan research center.

JUST HOW MUCH 'LEARNING' WILL KIDS 'LOSE?'

If you think comparing the coronavirus to Katrina sounds extreme, consider the effects of another interruption to student learning: the so-called "summer slide."

For years, researchers have studied the learning slowdown that takes place over the summer as well as how chronic absences and even snow days trip up students' progress.

So researchers at NWEA, a prominent testing consortium, created a forecast based on the assumption that students have been losing ground at the rate they might over a typical summer since mid-March, when campuses closed.

If that's the case, most students in fourth through eighth grade will start school next fall having lost at least half of the previous year's gains in math, the NWEA researchers wrote in a working paper released this month.

Screenshot from the working paper 'Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement' by Kuhfeld, et al.

In some grades, the losses could be even more significant. The most grim number in the forecast shows students entering sixth grade next year could be testing at fifth grade levels in math. (Students' transition to middle school may explain this especially scary projection.)

"Similar to the research that found students took nearly two full years to make up lost ground for the loss in instructional time due to Hurricane Katrina," the NWEA researchers wrote, "our COVID loss projections provide new evidence on the scope of the long-term educational recovery efforts that will be required."

Students caught in a "COVID slide" could also give back several month's worth of learning in reading — again, assuming that the slide occurs at the rate of a typical summer.

Forecast co-author Megan Kuhfeld, a research scientist at NWEA, readily acknowledges that the analogy to summer learning loss is fairly rough. Unlike during summer breaks, many teachers are still at least attempting to deliver new material and connect with students from a distance.

But Kuhfeld and co-author Beth Tarasawa also created a projection that assumes "kids aren't losing ground, but not really making gains either," Kuhfeld said — a forecast they call the "COVID slowdown."

If that's what's happening, the negative effects are "not quite so dire": Students "might be missing a couple extra months of learning, but you're not really falling behind," Kuhfeld said. (In the line graphs below, this forecast is the heavier dotted line.)

WILL THESE LEARNING LOSS PREDICTIONS COME TRUE?

So which scenario is more likely, a "COVID slide" or a "COVID slowdown"? Rather than picking one, Kuhfeld believes students will end up "pretty split" between the two.

"I see these as two situations that are likely happening for different groups of students," Kuhfeld said — groups of students that largely break down along some familiar lines of economic and family status.

"We're really going to see the inequalities between families mattering a lot for how much progress kids make," said Paul von Hippel, an associate professor at the University of Texas' LBJ School of Public Affairs.

For instance, if you're the child of a "single parent, who's maybe just lost their job, maybe doesn't have more than a month of expenses in the bank, who maybe didn't get past high school themselves," von Hippel said, "you're not in as advantaged a situation. It's going to be a struggle to make good progress."

Linda Darling-Hammond, a noted education researcher and chair of the State Board of Education, said there's reason to believe California students will fare better than NWEA's forecast suggests.

During a state Assembly hearing in April, Darling-Hammond said most California schools did not cease instruction for long when the pandemic hit — but the NWEA forecast assumed all instruction stopped.

"California has a better start on these goals than many other states," Darling-Hammond said. "Districts of course varied in how they managed initial closures, but 100% of them are now engaged in formal distance learning."

Some teachers are also leery of the most dire forecasts.

Manuel Rustin teaches at John Muir High School in Pasadena. He isn't worried about "as big a magnitude" of learning loss in his English classes, though he acknowledges gaps in math courses could be bigger. (The forecasts suggest he's onto something; reading levels aren't projected to drop by as much, if at all.)

"I think there's reason to hope it won't be quite as bad as the NWEA projections suggest," said von Hippel, who's known among academics for raising doubts about the extent of summer learning loss.

That said, von Hippel says policymakers are right to take the NWEA's warning seriously:

"It's almost a sure thing," he said, "that children are going to learn less when schools are closed."

A padlocked gate at Micheltorena Street Elementary School, an L.A. Unified School District campus in Silver Lake, on April 1, 2020. (Kyle Stokes/LAist)

WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT?

California schools may have to contend with a crisis of learning loss while also absorbing cuts in their funding.

Gov. Gavin Newsom's state budget proposal calls for slashing the state's main K-12 funding formula by 10% — a hit deep enough that many districts have already warned they'll have a difficult time reopening campuses, much less battling learning loss. (LAUSD has warned that reopening given these budget constraints is both unrealistic and potentially unsafe.)

But, if enacted, Newsom's budget would also redirect $4.4 billion in federal coronavirus relief money to public schools — with instructions that districts spend it all by the end of December 2020 to address learning loss, extend the school year or provide extra help for students.

Among the potential uses Newsom suggests for that money? "Diagnostic assessments of student learning needs."

That's another way of saying: low-stakes intake exams for students. Students would take these tests early next school year to figure out just how much of last year's content they've remembered.

"We know our teachers will assess our students where they're entering," state superintendent Tony Thurmond said last week, "and if they need some additional support and some intervention on how to be on grade level, we know that our teachers will provide that."

California schools already have these diagnostic tests on hand. But Heather Hough — the director of the PACE consortium — hopes state officials take an active role in directing how schools use them.

Hough says California officials need a comprehensive, statewide picture of how bad the "COVID slide" has been. The only way that will happen, she argues, is if the state makes these diagnostic assessments required in the fall.

Left to their own devices, Hough says schools might not choose to use the same versions of these low-stakes tests. So she also argues state officials could coordinate which of these assessments to use — or simply write their own, brand-new intake exam.

"We're making so many assumptions about what that learning loss might look like," Hough said. "If we have a consistent assessment, we don't have to make assumptions anymore ... Instead of making a guess about what kids need, we can make an informed decision."

If there was any silver lining to the shutdowns, it's that they took place so close to the end of the school year — when the pace of content delivery, in general, slows. Teachers begin assigning final projects. Even in normal times, students would begin to drift. (And the NWEA data bears this out, Kuhfeld said.)

But now the fall is bearing down — and it's not clear whether schools will be able to abandon distance learning by the time the new academic year begins.

"The first three months of school are a critical period for students' learning," Hough said. "So we're all really going to have to take a hard look at what district learning looks like in that setting."

"The approach many districts took in the spring," she warned, "won't necessarily port over to the fall."