The past year-plus was like no other in schools across the United States, and experts are just starting to get a handle on the academic toll the rollercoaster of COVID-19 disruptions took on kids. A recent New York Times report suggests, for example, that most children in this country are behind in reading and math — by about four to five months, on average — and within that, there are significant racial and economic disparities.
It’s unsettling news if you’re a parent who wants the best for your child and who has witnessed firsthand just how disruptive this time has already been — with another potentially strange academic year looming just around the corner.
With that in mind, HuffPost Parents spoke with several experts about what learning loss is (and isn’t) and what parents can do to help their kiddos now.
Myth #1: Learning loss is easy to spot and easy to define.
Learning loss is a fairly broad term that can be measured using many different tools and standards. And it simply hasn’t been that long since the previous academic year wrapped up, so there isn’t a broad consensus on exactly how far “behind” America’s kids are at this point.
“Learning loss can be defined in many ways, but, in general, it addresses the decline in learning outcomes for children over defined periods,” said Alicia Levi, president and CEO of Reading Is Fundamental, a nonprofit that works to promote children’s literacy.
“In a school year, we’re supposed to see growth,” added Lisa Collum, a teacher, and owner of Top Score Writing. So when experts talk about “loss,” they’re generally talking about a lack of growth, she explained. And there are other types of loss, too, that are more difficult to define but can be just as meaningful, if not more so — like social, emotional, and developmental setbacks.
“There have been social, emotional, and behavioral regressions that took time away from learning,” said Dr. Malia Beckwith, section chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics with Children’s Specialized Hospital in New Jersey.
Myth #2: Experts have never dealt with this kind of learning loss before.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly taken a toll on kids’ learning, educators have ample experience helping kids catch up.
“We do this all the time. We deal with kids who come in, who are way behind. We deal with kids that come in who don’t have the resources at home or outside of school that some other kids do,” said Collum.
Summer learning loss is a well-known issue that educators grapple with every year. “We’re just looking at this on a broader scale,” Collum said. So teachers may have a pretty big group of children behind typical benchmarks in their class next year, she said — instead of, say, only three or four children. But the strategies teachers use to help students catch up are likely to be similar to what they’ve used before, just with more kids.
“We’re going to have to adapt the strategies and resources that we use with a small group of kids [to] our whole class,” Collum said. “We may not have a whole-group structure this year. We may have more of a small-group structure because we’re going to have kids at different levels. But we do that, as educators, anyway.”
Ultimately, Collum said, it’s important to reassure parents that while the past year was unprecedented, teachers and schools have experience helping kids get caught up once they’ve got a sense of where they are. She told HuffPost that she hopes that knowledge will help alleviate some of the stress parents might be feeling as we head into the next school year.
Myth #3: Learning loss doesn’t matter.
While teachers like Collum do not want parents to feel stressed, they also emphasize that learning loss needs to be taken seriously.
“You can’t look at starting fresh in the next grade and next chapter if kids don’t have certain foundational skills from the year before,” Collum said.