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Ongoing COVID-19 School Closures Could Impact Academic Achievement

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Key Takeaways

  • Most students are predicted to have learned less in the 2019-20 school year compared to previous years.
  • The academic divide between students will likely have been widened during COVID-19 school closures.
  • Tutoring in school is suggested to help close the gap and improve academic outcomes as schools re-open.

COVID-19 school closures are predicted to increase the academic divide between students, especially with school closures potentially extending into the 2020-2021 school year.

Predictions released in Educational Researcher, a publication produced by the American Educational Research Association, suggest that almost all students will have learned less academically in the 2019-20 school year compared to previous years. 

Researchers report that many factors have impacted a student's individual results including school closures, access to technology and learning, economic and social stress, and civil unrest.

They recommend that as schools begin to re-open, government, policymakers, researchers, educators, families, and students will all need to work together to investigate and implement strategies to support students who need it most and to reduce the academic divide.

What the Study Found

Because wide-scale school closure for extended periods is a new experience for most of the world, researchers analyzed data about other forms of school absences. They looked at how learning is impacted by general school absenteeism, weather-related school closures, and summer vacation school breaks.

By combining this data, they predicted that most students would return to their 2020-2021 school year having only completed approximately 63-68% of expected reading and 37-50% of math compared to a standard uninterrupted school year.

However, they did predict that students who are already in the top third of their classes may have gained academic ground in reading, thus widening the academic divide between students.

Co-author of the study Megan Kuhfeld suggests that student's reading comprehension will be less affected than their math skills because most students have suitable and engaging reading material at home and families find that reading together is easier than practicing times tables.

As much as this previous school absence data was used to predict possibilities of learning loss, study authors admit that many other factors impact a child's learning outcomes in our current situation. Such examples include a child's access to technology, economic and social stress, and civil unrest. 

Access to Technology

Although the majority of schools tried to provide virtual learning via online platforms, the rapid onset of virtual learning meant that inconsistencies existed between the quantity and quality of home-based learning provided by schools.

Additionally, not all families have home internet or a suitable device to access their online learning modules. With the closure of libraries and other public learning facilities, these children were at a significant disadvantage because access to learning was severely limited.

Economic and Social Stress

Families across the nation continue to experience increased stress levels associated with working from home, job losses, loss of social support structures, and lack of access to resources.

Even events such as the police shootings of George Floyd and Jacob Blake, and the civic unrest that followed, are likely to have a significant impact on the learning of children who live in areas close to the incidents and on children of color across the nation.

Add a level of health anxiety about the COVID-19 pandemic, then the level of stress and anxiety in many homes is higher than ever. High levels of family stress can negatively impact academic performance in children.

How to Address the Widening Academic Divide

The academic divide is not a new phenomenon, but COVID-19 has likely worsened it. Although numerous opinions exist about how to address it, and no solution will solve it completely, most schools and researchers are trending towards additional tutoring services in schools as their best option.

Jill White, Educational Consultant

Middle school and high school students want to change the world - so parents who encourage this perspective in their teaching will go far.

— Jill White, Educational Consultant

Numerous private tutoring providers are already working with schools to help implement strategies to address the academic divide that is expected as children continue the 2020-2021 school year.

Additionally, state initiatives such as Tennessee Tutoring Corps are onboarding college students to help tutor K-6 students.

Nadeem Nathoo of The Knowledge Society suggests that although tutoring can be beneficial, students still need a desire to learn and the time to attend tutoring sessions. "[Tutoring] only works ... if students want it. If your students feel insecure about asking for help then providing this resource isn't as helpful."

He suggests that students who are most disadvantaged academically, are also those that have more responsibilities outside of school, and thus lack time to attend additional learning.

Encourage Your Student to Share Their Knowledge

One suggestion Nathoo makes is to incorporate social learning which means “incentivizing students to tutor and help other students.”

Educational Consultant Jill White agrees that, particularly in high school, students learn best by sharing their knowledge. She says, “High school students actually learn best by being able to share what they know.”

Although it may be questioned whether social learning would work in a single classroom, perhaps older children who are academically ahead of their classmates could provide assistance to younger students who need additional help.

This offers benefits to both the younger students who need one-on-one attention and the older students who are learning by teaching. Whilst this social learning occurs, teachers have an opportunity to work with remaining students in smaller group sizes to help achieve their individual learning needs.

Counter to this suggestion, literacy expert Talia Kovacs recommends that schools who plan to bring in external tutoring assistance must look at the quality of their tutors. “It's important to note the quality of the tutors- are they also certified teachers who can truly help to close gaps? Are they trained in their area of tutoring? By ensuring high-quality learning experiences, schools can begin to help close gaps.”

What can parents do?

Parents are in a unique position to really understand their child's unique strengths, perspectives, and abilities, says White. By harnessing your own understanding of your children and a few other key bits of information, you can encourage curiosity and learning in children.

White shares some age-based tips for your children’s learning style. 

  • For young children and lower elementary, “You can teach them almost anything if you put it into a song.”  
  • For grades 4-8 “[They] want to know the logic behind what they are learning, and it's a good thing to answer their question when they want to know, "Why do we have to learn this?"”
  • Finally, “High school students actually learn best by being able to share what they know. They want to know that others are fully aware of their opinions. Middle school and high school students want to change the world - so parents who encourage this perspective in their teaching will go far.”

Beyond academics, this pandemic has thrown so much anxiety, stress, and upheaval of normal life at every family. This may look different for every family, but we are all affected in some way. It is vital that as parents, we have an awareness that our children are not immune to these impacts.

Talia Kovacs, Children's Literacy Expert

More than missed academics is the habits of mind learned during this time that will accompany young people for the rest of their lives.

— Talia Kovacs, Children's Literacy Expert

Kovacs explains that a parent’s anxiety can be absorbed by children and have negative impacts on their learning.

“For parents, the main thing to focus on right now is that their students are developing new neural pathways each minute, and the more pressure, worry, and anxiety we put on them, the more they will be pressured, worried, and anxious.

However, if we allow for their independence and show them that we feel confident in them, that will allow them to be independent and confident. More than missed academics is the habits of mind learned during this time that will accompany young people for the rest of their lives.” Talia Kovacs

What This Means for You

It is important that we, as parents and caregivers, understand that this time will impact our children. But it has impacted all children. Children are resilient and they will learn, evolve, and grow from this experience with guidance, acceptance, and encouragement from their family.

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Article Sources
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  1. Kuhfeld M, Soland J, Tarasawa B, Johnson A, Ruzek E, Liu J. Projecting the potential impact of covid-19 school closures on academic achievementEducational Researcher. 2020;49(8):549-565. doi:10.3102/0013189X20965918

  2. Ang D. The effects of police violence on inner-city students*. Q J Econ. Published online September 9, 2020. doi:10.1093/qje/qjaa027