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Student Well-Being

COVID-19’s Harm to Learning Is Inevitable. How Schools Can Start to Address It

By Stephen Sawchuk — August 19, 2020 12 min read
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It has been more than a century since the United States experienced a pandemic that so fundamentally disrupted schooling. There is little research that directly speaks to what happens to learning afterwards. 

We don’t yet know how much ground students will lose because of the pandemic. What does seem certain is that it will be devastating—and that the effects are likely to be long lasting.

An estimate from McKinsey and Company suggests that, if schools don’t return to in-person schooling until January 2021, students could lose between three and 11 months of learning, depending on the quality of the remote learning. Those losses, it suggests, will be worse for Black, Hispanic, and low-income students.


District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.

Part 1: The Socially Distanced School Day
Part 2: Scheduling the School Year
Part 3: Tackling the Transportation Problem
Part 4: How to Make Remote Learning Work
Part 5: Teaching and Learning
Part 6: Overcoming Learning Loss
Full Report: How We Go Back to School

What’s more, studies on learning in the wake of natural disasters—probably the closest parallel to the COVID-19 pandemic—show that the effects can last for years. One study in Pakistan found that, four years after a devastating earthquake, those students closest to the epicenter were a year and a half behind their peers. And in the United States, where students who were displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 missed around five weeks of school, academic performance declined sharply in the first academic year following the disaster.

But the research also offers some glimmers of hope. The performance of the evacuated New Orleans students significantly improved after about four years, perhaps because many enrolled in better schools in other states after the disaster, indicating that acceleration is possible.

Michelle Kaffenberger, a Washington-based research fellow at Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Programme, modeled three approaches to responding to school closures in low-income and middle-income countries. She found that the best results didn’t come from pure remediation or “business as usual,” but rather a mix of tailoring some degree of instruction to the specific content gaps each student possessed, while not forgoing grade-level teaching.

That, in essence, sums up the challenge for U.S. districts. And it is a difficult balancing act. 

On the one hand, research suggests that teaching on grade level is a better approach than pull-out remediation. But it’s also apparent that expecting more of students who have fallen behind without additional supports can backfire, too. Both California and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina found few benefits for students’ math learning after ramping up Algebra 1 expectations without providing extra support. 

With that in mind, Education Week sought consensus on foundational pieces districts should establish before they turn to further interventions. Interviews with more than a dozen experts yielded five core tenets.

1. Prioritize attendance and engagement. 

It’s impossible to accelerate learning if students aren’t showing up, or if they’re tuning out from coursework. So nearly all successful interventions contain a social-emotional piece that hinges on establishing a trusting relationship between each student and an adult, conveying a sense that every child is special and cared for in some way. 

The school district in Springfield, Mass., as part of its Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership strategies, has implemented a “primary person” model: educators are now responsible for checking in on a handful of families multiple times a week, and that individual becomes a touchpoint between the family and the school district. 

“That has been a huge piece of our engagement strategy. If we are having synchronous or asynchronous learning and a student’s not there, it’s the primary person who is calling,” said Colleen Beaudoin, the co-director of the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership. “We had some kids who vanished off the face of the earth because they lost their home, or they moved to Tennessee, or they’re back in Puerto Rico because of their family. It’s become the safety net to make sure everyone’s physically and mentally well.” 

The Phoenix Union high school district in Arizona has instituted a similar system in which every central office staffer has a caseload of students they check in with daily so if some obstacle—say, a lack of Chromebooks—is preventing learning, the district can troubleshoot a solution. 

And the Achievement First charter network has added a new period in its remote-learning schedule: A daily advisory that reserves at least a half-hour a day for flexible teacher and student connections, said Amy D’Angelo, a regional superintendent and high school lead for the network of 37 schools.

“We need space dedicated and prioritized for social connection, for community, for students to be seen and valued and feel known and heard and to connect with other students who know them well,” she said. “And we have to be even more adaptive based on what that looks like based on student needs. … Being flexible first starts with holding the time sacred.”

As for setting expectations for learning, students’ experiences during the pandemic should be a starting point for discussions about what they want to accomplish, said James Ellout, the managing director for impact at City Year Jacksonville, a tutoring program that works with students in Jacksonville, Fla.

“We hear lot from elected officials about what schools should look like and how to factor in safety and learning, but the student voice and ...  what they are experiencing is the right framing we all need before we can build relationships and reach them,” he said. “The moments that tutors have in person [or] in the hybrid space, the relationship-building, has to be a priority.” 

2. Keep to grade-level content.

Too often, remedial programs, “pull outs,” and potentially even Tier II and III instruction in a response-to-intervention framework yank students away from regular grade-level content, which can lead students into a cycle of perpetually falling behind their classmates.

The strongest English/language arts curricula, in particular, are built so that they systematically build students’ content knowledge, a critical component of reading comprehension. Time away from core classes means missing out on carefully sequenced lessons. 

The superintendent of the Baltimore City public schools, Sonja Santelises, has drawn a firm line in the sand on this principle, refusing to hold students back in order to remediate.

“We are not re-doing grade level for large numbers of kids,” she said. “We are not doing that. One, research shows that it does not work. And two, it is just another way that we brand Black and brown children and low-income children in ways that we don’t other children.”

For districts, the primary challenge to ensuring grade-level access for all students before turning to remediation is the cultural belief among some educators that they should “meet students where they are” in part by introducing some lower-level content. It’s an idea that permeates some reading programs (“just-right books”) and is implicitly a theme in the work of frequently taught theorists in teaching programs (“the zone of proximal development”).

In fact, the best evidence suggests that a both-and approach is the best one: Interventions should meet kids where they are, but not at the expense of access to challenging, grade-level curriculum. They should be timely and respond to specific learning gaps, but not replace core learning. 

Perhaps the best parallel comes from higher education in what’s called the co-requisite model. Faced with a lot of evidence that remedial classes end up serving as a roadblock to degree completion, an increasing number of community colleges and four-year institutions now offer targeted assistance courses that students take alongside their regular credit-bearing courses. 

3. Adopt a core curriculum; be wary of online supplements.

With districts potentially needing to adapt their teaching models as health outcomes change, coordination will be key. Establishing a set of interventions efficiently among schools using vastly different curricula might prove to be impossible.

Emily Freitag, the CEO of Instruction Partners, who works with districts on their COVID-19 teaching plans, says one of the core recommendations she gives to districts is to select high-quality instructional materials now, rather than allowing for a piecemeal, school-by-school approach—even if it means speeding up the adoption cycle. 

Generally speaking, she said, it’s best to give teachers and curriculum specialists a long time to review the options and weigh strengths and weaknesses. But these are exceptional times.    

“In many places they’re doing it without an involved collaborative process, because they know having a backbone to instruction is honestly the only way to make these multiple schedules and scenarios work,” Freitag said. “Nobody would normally say that flipping the switch and going to a new curriculum now is a good option. But when you’re weighing it against scenarios like having half of your kids at home, or having four times as many substitute teachers, you have to choose the least bad one.”  

Many districts’ asynchronous lesson plans, meanwhile, rely on students using online tutoring apps, games, and curricula—many purporting to “adapt” to students’ learning levels—to practice specific skills or content. With few exceptions, research on specific programs is sparse.

The most promising approach seems to be “intelligent tutoring systems,” which generally are defined as self-paced computer programs that walk students through a lesson, assign practice tasks, and adapt to student need via prompts, questions, and feedback. But several meta-analyses on these systems conducted in the mid-2010s come to very different conclusions about effectiveness, with some finding large benefits and others no net gain in learning. The conflicting studies probably reflect different definitions of what counts as intelligent tutoring; differences in treatment and control conditions; and even the tests used to gauge student learning. 

As a rule of thumb, said Ken Koedinger, a professor of computer science at Carnegie-Mellon University, online programs are typically better at helping students practice procedural, one-step tasks rather than more complex problems. Still, he noted, cognitive science on learning does point to certain techniques that can be built into online programs. For example, research shows that requiring students to explain the steps they take to solve problems can help students better master and recall new material. And mixing different kinds of problems over several lessons is more effective in helping them retain the information than drilling them on just one at a time. Feedback and guidance are also key.

“One thing we know for sure is that to learn to do anything substantial and reach a reasonable level of expertise, you have to do it a lot with feedback and support,” he said. “Providing deliberate practice or some sort of feedback with practice is something technology can do at scale and with a certain level of safety.” 

If districts want to supplement instruction with such programs, they should look for those that prioritize practice, student feedback, and ideally, produce useful information that a teacher, tutor, or parent can build on during other instruction.   

4. Preserve core teaching time.

It may seem obvious, but with face-to-face time with a teacher in short supply, as it’s almost certain to be in U.S. classrooms in 2020-21, every second counts. Districts should do everything possible not to interrupt teachers when they are teaching in-person lessons. 

One study in Providence, R.I., found that classroom interruptions added up to around 10 to 20 days of lost instructional time per year. (Tardy students were the most frequent interruption, followed by visits by other teachers, school staff, or administrators.)           

“While this is not a silver bullet, I think it presents one of the frankly few organizational practices that are relatively easy to implement and near-costless that we can use to meaningfully recoup lost learning time,” said Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University, who conducted the research.

The same principle should go for online teaching, too. Some of the most popular tutoring interventions, like the nonprofit City Year, plan to adjust their work in the fall to avoid taking away in-person learning time with core teachers.

“We are thinking about and honoring the fact that if we are in a hybrid model, teachers are going to really covet that time with their students,” said Stephanie Wu, the chief impact officer for City Year’s national organization. Tutors might be able to assist with the online learning by facilitating chats or discussions or extending teachers’ lessons, she said.

5. Make a hybrid schedule work for students.

Hybrid schedules make use of both in-person and remote learning, often through an A/B or morning/afternoon cycle that rotates. Many districts that have created these schedules have one extra day in a week when no students are scheduled to be in class. 

In addition to deep cleaning and other health measures, that day could be used to provide services to those students most in need of face-to-face engagement: students in transition years like the 9th grade, English-learners, students with disabilities, or students who are struggling academically for some reason.

Before it ultimately decided to give all families a choice between in-person and remote teaching, the Clarksville-Montgomery County school district in Tennessee proposed a hybrid model that would have prioritized its 2,500 1st graders for in-person teaching. The thinking was to give them the most face-to-face contact for learning phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency, said Millard L. House II, the district’s superintendent.

“If you’re going to stay ahead of the curve in later grades, 1st grade is the most integral grade in terms of reading mechanics,” he said. “We have to have them in front of highly qualified teachers.” 

Baltimore’s schools will begin with full remote learning. But if conditions allow, it will move to an optional hybrid model, and the district will allow struggling students—those who have not engaged fully in the virtual space, English-learners, and students with individualized education plans—to return first. It may also prioritize kindergarten, 1st grade, and the transition years of 6th and 9th grade.

Assistant Editor Denisa R. Superville contributed to this report.

Jawana Akuffo, counselor, White River (Wash.) school district; Elaine Allensworth, director, University of Chicago Consortium on School Research; Amy D’Angelo, Regional superintendent and high school lead, Achievement First; Colleen Beaudoin, co-executive director, Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership; Greg Benjamin, counselor, White River (Wash.) school district; Emily Burdick, Dean of Curriculum & Instruction, Emergency Academy, Springfield, Mass.; Carla Burgi, counselor, White River (Wash.) school district; Robbie Coleman, acting director, National Tutoring Programme; Stephanie Dann, mental health coordinator, White River (Wash.) school district; Heather Hill, professor of education, Harvard Graduate School of Education; James Ellout, managing director for impact, City Year Jacksonville; Sarah Frazelle, director of early warning indicator systems and multitiered systems of support, Puget Sound Education Service District; Emily Freitag, CEO, Instruction Partners; Michelle Kaffenberger, research fellow, Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Programme; Matthew Kraft, associate professor of education and economics, Brown University; Ken Koedinger, professor of Computer Science, Carnegie-Mellon University; Steve Leifsen, executive director, equity and student support services, White River (Wash.) school district; Cody Mothershead, principal, White River (Wash.) school district; Misael Ramos, ELL math teacher and coach, Springfield (Mass.) public schools; Sonja Santelises, superintendent, Baltimore city schools; Beth Schueler, assistant professor of education and public policy, University of Virginia; Nathaniel Schwartz, leader, Brown University Annenberg Institute for School Reform; Anne Sinclair, Chief Learning Officer, Reading and Math, Inc.; Robert Slavin, professor, Johns Hopkins University and director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education; Christine SySantos Levy, special projects coordinator, Johns Hopkins School of Education’s Center for Research and Reform; Stephanie Wu, Chief Impact Officer, City Year.

Studies and Documents:
“Can States Take over and Turn Around School Districts? Evidence from Lawrence, Massachusetts.” 2016. By Beth E. Schueler, Joshua Goodman, and David J. Demming. National Bureau of Economic Research working paper 21895; “Making the Most of School Vacations; A Field Experiment of Small Group Instruction.” 2018. By Beth E. Schueler. Association for Education Finance and Policy; “Improving Academic Outcomes for Students: Scaling Up individualized Tutorials.” 2016. By Roseanna Ander, Jonathan Guryan, and Jens Ludwig. The Hamilton Project, Brookings Institution; “Effective Programs in Elementary Mathematics: A Meta-Analysis.” 2020. By Marta Pellegrini, Cynthia Lake, Amanda Neitzel, and Robert E. Slavin. Best Evidence Encyclopedia; “A Synthesis of Quantitative Research on Programs for Struggling Readers in Elementary Schools.” 2020. By Amanda J. Neitzel, Cynthia Lake, Marta Pellegrini, and Robert Slavin. Best Evidence Encyclopedia; “Failing to Plan? Estimating the Impact of Achieving Schooling Goals on Cohort Learning.” 2020. By Michelle Kaffenberger and Lant Pritchett. Research on Improving Systems of Education; “Human Capital Accumulation and Disasters: Evidence from the Pakistani Earthquake of 2005.” 2020. By Tahiri Andrabi, Benjamin Daniels, and Jishnu Das. Research on Improving Systems of Education; “Remedial Math Goes to High School: An Evaluation of the Tennessee SAILS Program.” 2018. By Thomas J. Kane, Angela Boatman, Whitney Kozakowski, Chris Bennett, Rachel Hitch, Dana Weisenfeld. Center for Education Policy Research, Harvard University; “Impact of School Closures on the Attainment Gap: Rapid Evidence Assessment.” 2020. Education Endowment Foundation; “Remote Learning: Rapid Evidence Assessment.” 2020. Education Endowment Foundation; “COVID-19 and Student Learning Loss in the United States: The Hurt Could Last a Lifetime.” 2020. By Emma Dorn, Bryan Hancock, Jimmy Sarakatsannis, and Ellen Viruleg. McKinsey; “The Impressive Effects of Tutoring on PreK-12 Learning: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Experimental Evidence.” 2020. By Andre Nickow, Phillip Oreopoulos, and Vincent Quan; “The (Surprising) Efficacy of Academic and Behavioral Intervention with Disadvantaged Youth: Results from a Randomized Experiment in Chicago.” 2014. By Philip J. Cook, Kenneth Dodge, George Farkas, Roland G. Fryer, Jr., Jonathan Guryan, Jens Ludwig, Susan Mayer, Harold Pollack, and Laurence Steinberg. National Bureau of Economic Research working paper 19862; “The Aftermath of Accelerating Algebra: Evidence from a District Policy Initiative.” 2012. By Charles T. Clotfelter, Helen F. Ladd, and Jacob L. Vigdor. National Bureau of Economic Research working paper 18161; “Aiming High and Falling Short: California’s Eighth-Grade Algebra-for-All Effort.” 2015. By Thurston Domina, Andrew McEachin, Andrew Penner, and Emily Penner. Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis; “A Meta-Analysis of the Effectiveness of Intelligent Tutoring Systems on K-12 Mathematical Learning.” 2013. By Saiying Steenbergen-Hu and Harris Cooper. Journal of Education Psychology; “Intelligent Tutoring Systems and Learning Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis.” 2014. By Wenting Ma, Olusola O. Adesope, John C. Nesbit, and Qing Liu. Journal of Educational Psychology; “Effectiveness of Intelligent Tutoring Systems: A Meta-Analytic Review.” 2016.  By James A. Kulick and J.D. Fletcher. Review of Educational Research; “A Practitioner’s Guide to Implementing Early Warning Systems.” 2015. By Sarah Frazelle and Aisling Nagel. Education Northwest; “When the Saints Go Marching Out: Long-Term Outcomes for Student Evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.” 2012. By Bruce Sacerdote. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics; “School Practices To Address Student Learning Loss.” 2020. By Elaine Allensworth and Nate Schwartz. EdResearch for Recovery, Annenberg Institute, Brown University; “The Big Problem with Little Interruptions to Classroom Learning.” 2020. By Matthew Kraft and Manuel Monti-Nussbaum. The Annenberg Institute at Brown University; “High-Dosage Tutoring and Reading Achievement: Evidence from New York City”.  2017. By Roland G. Fryer, Jr. and Megan Howard Noveck. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 23792; “The Production of Human Capital in Developed Countries: Evidence from 196 Randomized Field Experiments.” 2016. By Roland G. Fryer, Jr., Harvard University, and National Bureau of Economic Research.


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