When Covid-19 began to spread across the country in March 2020, schools in every state closed their doors. Remote instruction effectively became a national policy for the rest of that spring.
A few months later, however, school districts began making different decisions about reopening. In much of the South and Great Plains, as well as parts of the Northeast, schools resumed in-person classes in the fall of 2020. Across much of the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast, school buildings remained closed and classes remained online for months.
These differences created a great experiment, testing how well remote learning worked during the pandemic. Since then, academic researchers have been studying the issue and have come to one consistent conclusion: remote learning was a failure.
In today’s newsletter, I’ll cover that 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 closures a crucial part of the country’s Covid response?
A generational loss
Three times a year, millions of K-12 students in the US take a test known as the MAP that measures their abilities in math and reading. A team of researchers from the Harvard Center for Educational Policy Research used the MAP results to study learning over a two-year period beginning in the fall of 2019, before the pandemic began.
The researchers divided students into different groups based on the amount of time they spent attending school in person during 2020-21, the academic year with the greatest variation in whether schools were open. On average, students who attended school in person for nearly all of 2020-21 lost about 20 percent of a typical school year’s math learning during the study’s two-year window.
Some of those losses were due to the time students spent learning remotely during the spring of 2020, when school buildings were almost fully closed. And some of the losses were due to the difficulties of face-to-face education during the pandemic, as families grappled 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 percent of a typical school year’s math learning during the study’s two-year window.
“We’ve seen in this recent study how big the gaps are,” Roberto Rodriguez, deputy secretary of President Biden’s Department of Education, told me.
The findings are consistent with other studies. “It’s pretty clear that remote school was not good for learning,” said Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University and co-author of another similar study. As Matthew Chingos, an expert at the Urban Institute, says: “Students learned less if their school was remote than if they had done it in person.”
One of the most alarming findings is that school closures widened economic and racial disparities in learning. In Monday’s newsletter, I told you how much progress K-12 education had made in the US during the 1990s and early 2000s: reading and math skills improved, especially for black students and Latinos.
The Covid lockdowns have reversed much of that progress, at least for now. Low-income students, as well as black and Latino students, fell further behind in the past two years, relative to high-income white or Asian students. “This will probably be the largest increase in educational inequality in a generation,” Thomas Kane, an author of the Harvard study, told me.
There are two main reasons. First, schools with large numbers of poor students were more likely to become remote.
Why? Many of these schools are in major cities, which tend to be run by Democratic officials, and Republicans were generally quicker to reopen schools. High-poverty schools are also more likely to have unionized teachers, and some unions pushed for remote education.
Second, low-income students fared even worse when schools went remote. 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 solve problems.
Together, these factors mean that school closures were what economists call a regressive policy, one that widened inequality by doing more harm to groups that were already vulnerable.
a recovery effort
Congress has tried to address learning loss by allocating about $190 billion for schools in pandemic bailout bills. That works out to more than $3,500 for the average K-12 public school student.
Rodríguez, the Education Department official, said he was encouraged by the way schools were using the money. One strategy with a documented history is known as high-dose mentoring, he noted. Sessions may involve three or four students, who receive at least a half hour of targeted instruction a few times a week.
Kane is more concerned with how schools use federal money. He thinks that many are spending a significant portion on non-academic programs, such as new technologies. “I’m afraid that while school agencies are planning a variety of catch-up activities, their plans just don’t match the losses,” he said.
By the time schools realize that many students are falling behind, the federal money may be gone.
what could have been
Were many of these problems preventable? The evidence suggests that they were. Extended school closures appear to have done far more harm than good, and many school administrators probably could have recognized that by fall 2020.
In places where schools reopened that summer and fall, the spread of Covid was not much worse than in places where schools remained closed. Schools also reopened in parts of Europe without appearing to spark outbreaks.
In October 2020, Oster wrote an article in The Atlantic titled “Schools Aren’t Superspreaders,” telling me this week that the evidence was pretty clear even earlier. By fall 2020, many people were no longer isolated at home, which meant reopening schools did not create any major new risks.
The Washington Post recently profiled a district in Colorado where schools quickly reopened, noting that no children were hospitalized and many thrived. “We wanted it to be as normal as possible,” said Chris Taylor, president of the school board.
Hundreds of other districts, especially in liberal communities, kept schools closed for a year or more. The authorities said they were doing it to protect children and especially the most vulnerable children. The effect, however, was often the opposite.
In the last two years, the US has suffered from two very different covid problems. Many Americans have not reacted well to the pandemic and are refusing to receive life-saving vaccines. Many others have overreacted, overlooking the large and uneven costs of allowing Covid to dominate daily life for months on end.
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