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Over the last year and a half, schoolchildren have experienced two pandemics. The first, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ravaged (and continues to ravage) the globe. Another, less obvious pandemic, is the learning loss pandemic.
With erratic school openings and closings, many students have struggled to keep up.
At first, the idea of attending school from home may have seemed fun and novel. Over time, though, as students (and many of their teachers) grappled with new learning software and virtual platforms, it became harder to stay on track and make progress.
Learning loss is a serious issue, and while a lot of teachers and parents are worried about it, there are still some who are convinced it’s not a big deal. Read on to learn more about the impact of learning loss, as well as some potential solutions that can help students get up to speed once more.
Before getting a basic learning loss meaning or definition, a lot of people ask questions like “What is learning loss” and “Is learning loss real?”
Let’s address the second question first. Learning loss is absolutely real, and it can affect students of all ages and backgrounds.
In the context of school children, the term “learning loss” refers to a loss of knowledge or skills that a student had previously mastered. There are lots of reasons why a student may experience learning loss, such as summer break, ineffective instruction, or a global pandemic that causes frequent interruptions to their education.
Any student can struggle with learning loss, especially when their learning environment is constantly changing. However, certain students are more likely to fall behind. Those who do not have adequate internet or technology access, for example, will generally struggle more than those who have high-speed internet and their own laptop.
What effects, specifically, has COVID-19 had on student performance? How has it contributed to learning loss?
Due to a lack of results from standardized tests (which were cancelled throughout most of the world due to inconsistencies in education), there is not a lot of widespread data showing how students were affected academically by the pandemic. However, some small-scale studies show troubling results.
In Canada, for example, 8 schools in the Edmonton area learned that students’ read testing scores were lower in September of 2020 than they had been in years past. The disparities were especially noticeable among younger students.
Toronto’s district school board also learned that many students’ early literacy scores were negatively affected. They say that these effects are likely due (at least in part) to a lack of in-person classroom reading opportunities.
In the short term, learning loss can cause students to perform poorly on tests and fall behind their peers. How do these effects impact students long-term, though?
The following are some specific ways that learning loss may hold students back now and in the future:
When students feel behind in school, it’s common for their rates of engagement to decline.
Whether they’re learning remotely or in a traditional classroom, it’s understandable that students who feel far behind their peers may give up or “check out” and stop performing at the level they once did. This is especially true if they aren’t receiving adequate support from teachers, tutors, counsellors, etc. to help them get caught up.
Unfortunately, a decline in engagement often causes students to fall even further behind.
When students fall too far behind their peers, some may choose to drop out of school altogether. This may feel like the only option, especially if they’re performing poorly in all of their classes. They may feel as if there’s no way for them to graduate, so they may as well drop out and try to find a job instead.
Children who are struggling in school are more likely to experience mental health challenges like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse issues. On the flip side, poor mental health can also affect a student’s school performance and make it hard for them to keep up.
Considering the negative impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on many people’s mental health over the last year and a half, it stands to reason that more students will be dealing with these issues now than in the past.
Without sufficient mental health support, it will be hard to make up for the consequences of pandemic-related learning loss.
Students who struggle to keep up in school may have a harder time getting accepted to colleges and higher education programs. A lack of higher education, in turn, can hold them back from a lot of jobs, including many of those that come with opportunities for growth over time.
Students who leave school altogether are even more likely to struggle in the job arena. They will find that they’re unqualified for a lot of jobs and may have a hard time making ends meet.
For a lot of people, fewer job opportunities also mean an increase in income disparities.
Many of the school children who are struggling the most right now with learning loss will likely also have a harder time finding well-paying jobs in the future. This, in turn, may end up increasing income gaps and making it harder for certain people to provide for themselves and their families moving forward.
The results of learning loss can be severe. How can this issue be addressed, though?
There are many ways that educators, administrators, and elected officials can work together to minimize the effects of learning loss, especially in the wake of COVID-19. The following are just some examples:
Educators shouldn’t make assumptions about what their students do and don’t know. Instead, they should start the new school year with thorough assessments to identify their students’ biggest knowledge gaps.
The more insight they have into the specific subjects with which students are struggling, the easier it will be for them to create tailored lesson plans that fill in those gaps and give them the tools they need to get caught up and continue making progress as they continue their education.
Many students will benefit from additional, intensive learning programs designed to help them get caught up.
Summer school and after-school programs are great options to provide students with extra help and ensure they don’t fall farther behind. Weekend programs may be beneficial as well.
There may be hesitation from teachers to participate in additional programs, and parents may balk at the idea of their child spending even more time in school (especially if they don’t have the means to easily drive them to and from).
Administrators can prevent many of these issues, though, by listening to concerns and working with parents and teachers to find solutions.
For students who are unable to participate in learning programs that take place outside of the regular school day, in-school tutoring support may also be a viable option.
In-school tutors can work with students during regular classroom hours to answer questions and provide additional support. This helps to take some of the pressure off the teacher while also giving students more individualized attention.
It may be tempting for teachers to backtrack and spend a lot of time reviewing with students the material they should have covered the previous year.
This desire is likely well-intentioned and makes sense at first. However, some educators believe that teaching material that the students should have learned previously is setting expectations too low. This, in turn, can trap them in a cycle of underachievement.
A better approach, in a lot of cases, might be to focus on grade-level content and then fill in gaps as needed.
Educators need to focus on academics in the coming school years to make up for learning losses and help students get caught up. At the same time, though, they should not neglect their students’ social-emotional learning.
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on a lot of people’s mental health, and school children are no exception.
Mental health challenges can exacerbate learning difficulties and hold students back from performing to the best of their abilities. Unless students have opportunities to explore and express their emotions, they may have a harder time progressing academically.
Finally, to accomplish all of the things listed above, schools need funding. The more money that’s invested in schools, from hiring additional staff to expanding after-school and summer school options, the more likely students are to catch up and thrive now and in the future.
If you were unsure of the seriousness of learning loss caused (or exacerbated) by COVID-19, hopefully, you now have a more well-rounded view of the problem.
Keep the information outlined above, especially the tools related to mending learning loss, in mind moving forward. That way, you can better support the students in your life and give them the help they need to succeed.