The long-term impact of COVID lockdowns is painfully apparent to the thousands of West Virginia students who are having to repeat a grade. The state’s retention rate more than doubled, as did the rates of South Carolina and Delaware. 

Out of 26 states which reported their retention data to the Associated Press, 22 saw an uptick in students needing to repeat a grade after the COVID school closures. This is no surprise: The most recent Nation’s Report Card results showed historic declines in math performance among 4th graders and abysmal results in reading. 

Remote learning failed to prepare many students for the next grade. The experience was remote, but it wasn’t learning. 

Repeating a grade means delaying high school graduation by a year, which means delaying the start of college or a career by a year. For families, it means another year of having the child at home, and for schools, an extra year of a student who needs a teacher and learning resources. The decision to hold a child back a grade is not one to be made lightly, because it has long-term ramifications. 

Still, not repeating a grade and failing to master the educational basics would be worse for a student than delaying his or her graduation. The real tragedy would be shuffling students along from one grade to the next with no regard for what they have actually learned. 

Seventeen states have enacted legislation to make sure kids are not sent on a conveyor belt to the next grade if they have not yet mastered reading. Michigan has a “Read by Grade Three” law, which requires third graders to be held back if their reading performance on a standardized test is more than one grade level behind where they should be. Florida law requires public schools to hold back third graders who score too low in reading on a standardized test. Likewise, Ohio has a “Third Grade Reading Guarantee” that forces schools to hold back third graders who fail to meet a specific score on an English Language Arts standardized test. 

These laws exist to stop struggling students from falling through the cracks, but a better solution would be to catch students and help them before they fall a year or more behind on reading. There are practical steps that schools can, and should, take rather than simply accept that many of their students are unprepared for the next grade level. For instance, offering high-dosage tutoring and additional support for struggling kids can go a long way toward getting them caught up. Tailoring support to the student works best: As the Mountain State Spotlight reports, “Many West Virginia schools use a tiered intervention process: the more a child has fallen behind in school, the more intense the support they receive.”

Contrary to what teachers unions say, schools have plenty of resources to create the additional supports their students need. Billions of dollars in the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund still remain unspent. This money was allocated by Congress to help keep learning going during the pandemic and to help mitigate learning loss. School districts can, and should, use their remaining allotments to provide tutoring to students who need it, equip students with the learning resources they need to catch up, and evaluate students’ abilities so employees can deliver the best possible support. 

Prolonged school closures were not inevitable, and neither was the learning loss that came along with them. In the aftermath of keeping kids out of school, the best thing parents and educators can do for them is bring them up to speed academically. When a student missed out on a year or more of school, education leaders should not be surprised that the student needs a year to make it up. If schools commit to teaching the educational basics, this could be a year very well spent.