Public schools across the country created a learning loss crisis by closing schools for extended periods and denying students access to in-person learning during the Covid-19 pandemic. Young children, students from low-income households, and students with disabilities suffered the most. How much do you know about the learning loss that has devastated students across the country? Can you identify which of the following is the lie? 

A. School closures and remote learning did not affect students’ academic performance.

B. The most vulnerable students, the youngest students, those with learning disabilities, and the high-poverty, suffered the most.

C. School choice is a good solution to repairing learning loss.

Let’s take these statements one at a time: 

A. LIE. Lengthy school closures and deplorable remote instruction, often imposed upon students in response to teachers unions’ demands, resulted in two years of disrupted learning and sharp declines in reading and math scores. Students entered the pandemic with weak academic skills, with only one-third of students reading proficiently and less than one-quarter of 12th graders proficient in math in 2019. 

Covid-era education policies compounded the literacy crisis, lowered math achievement, and negatively impacted students’ performance in additional subjects as well. Students didn’t just miss out on academic knowledge. According to McKinsey and Company analysis, “They are at risk of finishing school without the skills, behaviors, and mindsets to succeed in college or in the workforce.” In the midst of this academic crisis, many school districts unfortunately do not appear to be addressing the learning loss crisis their policies created.

B. TRUTH. The negative impact of school closures on young students became apparent early in the pandemic. Assessment and curriculum provider, Amplify Education, found in 2020 that early readers—children in first and second grade—were struggling as compared to previous years even in the early months of school closures. Test scores in 2020 already revealed that “40% of first grade students and 35% of second grade students scored “well below grade level” on a reading assessment, compared with 27% and 29% the previous year.” 

Students with special needs were heavily impacted as well. Numerous media outlets, including the Washington Post, the L.A. Times and NPR, reported throughout the pandemic that students with special needs, in particular, were falling behind due to school closures. When schools closed, students with disabilities lost their daily structure and routine; their access to speech, occupational, or physical therapy; and their classroom accommodations and assistance. 

And high-poverty students fall further behind than ever. Research has consistently found that achievement gaps between low-poverty students and high-poverty students increased significantly during the pandemic. USA Today reported:

“The consequences are most dire for low-income and minority children, who are more likely to be learning remotely and less likely to have appropriate technology and home environments for independent study compared with their wealthier peers. Children with disabilities and those learning English have particularly struggled in the absence of in-class instruction. Many of those students were already lagging academically before the pandemic. Now, they’re even further behind—with time running out to meet key academic benchmarks.”

C. TRUTH. Policymakers should empower parents to leave their public schools and enroll their children in alternative educational options. State and local leaders should fund students directly by either redirecting existing K-12 education funding or using federal state and local fiscal recovery funds provided under the American Rescue Plan to create flexible education savings accounts (ESA). Allowing parents to access K-12 funding directly through ESAs enables them to escape the chaos of COVID-era education systems and swiftly address their children’s educational needs. States could also create smaller-scale ESAs or microgrants that provide parents with access to funds that can be used on tutoring, coaching and afterschool and summer school programs focused on learning loss. 

Bottom Line: 

Children deserve a path out of learning loss and deteriorating mental health. Educational freedom empowers parents to find an educational environment that prioritizes academic instruction and healthy childhood experiences. Policymakers must ensure that schools are actively addressing learning loss and give parents options.

To learn more about learning loss, read this month’s policy focus