Student Achievement

The Pandemic Hit Vulnerable Students Hardest. Now, Schools Have to Reckon With the Effects

By Sarah Schwartz — December 14, 2021 6 min read
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Over the past two years, the main constant of pandemic schooling has been that there is no constant.

Many students struggled with remote learning, but some thrived. Some children have been in a physical school building most days this year, while others have dealt with multiple quarantines or even temporary building-wide shutdowns. Some students have access to academic recovery support, and others do not.

These different realities aren’t randomly distributed, though. Studies and reporting throughout the pandemic have shown that students of color and students from low-income families were hardest hit by disruptions to in-person school.

Now, a new report from McKinsey & Company demonstrates how these inequities have persisted into the 2021-22 school year, and how they’re beginning to shape the pandemic recovery process.

As quarantines, staff shortages, and other pandemic-related issues continue to disrupt learning this year, “programs to support students are not always reaching the ones who need it most,” the report’s authors write. “If this trend continues, the pandemic could leave students with increasingly unequal access to education and opportunity.”

Here are three big takeaways from the report:

1. Schools have to help some students make up much more academic ground than others, and the gap between those two groups is widening.

To look at student achievement, McKinsey used data from iReady assessments, an interim test from the curriculum and assessment provider Curriculum Associates. The sample included 1st-6th graders, about 3 million students in math and 2.7 million students in reading.

According to these tests, students are about four months behind in math and three in reading, compared with similar students in pre-pandemic years. (These results are in line with Curriculum Associates’ own review of the iReady data, released in November.)

But this unfinished learning is distributed inequitably. In schools where more than 75 percent of the student body is Black, students are further behind their pre-pandemic peers than in schools where more than 75 percent of the student body is white. The same holds true in comparing low-income schools and high-income schools. See chart below:

121321 data LearningLoss

Even within individual classrooms, there’s a great deal of variation in how the pandemic affected students academically, said Wendy Habeeb, an 8th grade math teacher at Salida Middle School in Salida, Calif. Most of Habeeb’s students are Latino and from low-income families, and many are English-language learners.

“I have students who are taking anything eighth grade we throw at them and just thriving,” she said. “I have students who are working really hard who don’t have a lot of number sense. … And then I have kids who have so little self-confidence mathematically, that they’ll just look at you like you have three heads.”

So she and her fellow 8th grade math teachers identified one of the most important skills for students’ success in next year’s algebra class—understanding linear equations—and focused on differentiating those lessons for students’ needs. “We feel like we’re teaching sixth, seventh, and eighth grade every day in math class,” she said.

It’s paid off, though. By this point in the school year, almost all of Habeeb’s students can solve multi-step equations. Still, Habeeb doesn’t see how she and her colleagues could take this kind of intensive, multi-tiered approach for every 8th grade math skill without additional teaching time or staff support.

“We’re going to have to provide some long-term intervention with kids who are so far behind,” she said.

2. Many students are still experiencing big disruptions to learning, and more parents are reporting student absences from school.

Even though most students are back in school buildings this year, closures due to staff shortages, COVID outbreaks, and mental health days mean that the 2021-22 school year is far from business as usual.

McKinsey surveyed parents, asking those whose children were attending school in person about school operations during the two weeks before they took the survey. Seventeen percent said that their kids had missed school for a pandemic-related reason during that time period. Of these disruptions, less than half were due to full campus closures. Twelve percent were due to student quarantines, and 6 percent for student sickness.

When these students were at home, about half—54 percent—received live virtual instruction. Thirty percent had asynchronous instruction, while 15 percent of parents reported that their children didn’t have any instruction.

Nationally, the biggest driver of school closures isn’t COVID-19 cases, but what the report’s authors call “pandemic-related stressors.” According to data from Burbio, a data service that tracks school calendars, 50 percent of closures are one-off days to support student or staff mental health.

Students aren’t just missing school due to closures, though. McKinsey’s survey found that 22 percent of parents said their child had missed four or more days so far this school year. If these students continue to miss school at the same rate for the rest of 2020-21, the authors write, they will miss 15 or more days this school year—the federal threshold for chronic absenteeism. Students from low-income families are 1.6 times more likely to be missing days than students from high-income families.

Those numbers are higher than average. Pre-pandemic, about 16 percent of students were chronically absent, according to federal data. The report’s authors note that rates of absenteeism may actually be higher than they seem, citing previous research that shows parents tend to underestimate how many days their children miss school.

As a result, they estimate that 1.7 million to 3.3 million 8th-12th graders could drop out as a result of the pandemic, based on historical links between absenteeism and graduation.

“Absenteeism drives course failure,” said Robert Balfanz, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Education and an expert on graduation rates and dropout prevention. Balfanz was not involved in the McKinsey report.

“I think it is safe to assume, unfortunately, that more kids … this year won’t graduate because they’ll fall short on their credits due to pandemic effects,” he said. “And the unknown is, how big is that [number]?”

There are ways that schools can intervene, Balfanz said. “For the older students, [schools] just have to be as smart and flexible at learning about credit recovery as they can,” he said. “You need to have a person involved. You can’t totally automate it, and say, ‘Go online and do it yourself.’”

With younger students in middle school and early high school, there’s more time to help students reconnect with school, develop supportive peer groups, and form relationships with caring adults, he said. He also touted the importance of early warning systems, ways of monitoring indicators that can show if a student is off-track to graduate.

The pandemic isn’t over, and how students are affected by it may continue to change, he said. “Those impacts are dynamic. It’s still going on.”

3. Access to support systems—like tutoring, or mental health supports—is unevenly distributed.

In McKinsey’s survey, high-income parents were more likely than low-income parents to say that their children participated in programs or activities designed to support them during the pandemic. For example, 28 percent of high-income parents said their kids had accessed tutoring, homework help, or test prep since the end of the 2020-21 school year, while only 16 percent of low-income parents said the same.

Across all races and income levels, parents reported that they were most interested in in- and after-school academic supports, mental health services, and mentoring. They were least interested in summer school.

Low-income parents are somewhat less likely than high-income parents to seek out these supports: 33 percent said they weren’t interested in any of these programs, compared with 20 percent of high-income parents. But low-income parents are also less likely to be satisfied with their school’s pandemic-recovery offerings.

“A more targeted approach may be required to ensure that low-income students and other vulnerable populations are able to access high-quality support and recovery programs,” the report’s authors write.

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