When Covid-19 began to sweep across the country in March 2020, schools in every state closed their doors. Remote instruction effectively became a national policy for the rest of that spring.
A few months later, however, school districts began to make different decisions about whether to reopen. Across much of the South and the Great Plains as well as some pockets of the Northeast, schools resumed in-person classes in the fall of 2020. Across much of the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast, school buildings stayed closed and classes remained online for months.
These differences created a huge experiment, testing how well remote learning worked during the pandemic. Academic researchers have since been studying the subject, and they have come to a consistent conclusion: Remote learning was a failure.
In today’s newsletter, I’ll cover that research as well as two related questions: How might the country help children make up the losses? And should schools have reopened earlier — or were the closures a crucial part of the country’s Covid response?
A generational loss
Three times a year, millions of K-12 students in the U.S. take a test known as the MAP that measures their skills in math and reading. A team of researchers at Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research have used the MAP’s results to study learning during a two-year period starting in the fall of 2019, before the pandemic began.
The researchers broke the students into different groups based on how much time they had spent attending in-person school during 2020-21 — the academic year with the most variation in whether schools were open. On average, students who attended in-person school for nearly all of 2020-21 lost about 20 percent worth of a typical school year’s math learning during the study’s two-year window.
Some of those losses stemmed from the time the students had spent learning remotely during the spring of 2020, when school buildings were almost universally closed. And some of the losses stemmed from the difficulties of in-person schooling during the pandemic, as families coped with disruption and illness.
But students who stayed home for most of 2020-21 fared much worse. On average, they lost the equivalent of about 50 percent of a typical school year’s math learning during the study’s two-year window.
“We have seen from this recent study just how large the gaps are,” Roberto Rodríguez, an assistant secretary in President Biden’s Education Department, told me.
The findings are consistent with other studies. “It’s pretty clear that remote school was not good for learning,” said Emily Oster, a Brown University economist and the co-author of another such study. As Matthew Chingos, an Urban Institute expert, puts it: “Students learned less if their school was remote than they would have in person.”
One of the most alarming findings is that school closures widened both economic and racial inequality in learning. In Monday’s newsletter, I told you about how much progress K-12 education had made in the U.S. during the 1990s and early 2000s: Math and reading skills improved, especially for Black and Latino students.
The Covid closures have reversed much of that progress, at least for now. Low-income students, as well as Black and Latino students, fell further behind over the past two years, relative to students who are high-income, white or Asian. “This will probably be the largest increase in educational inequity in a generation,” Thomas Kane, an author of the Harvard study, told me.
There are two main reasons. First, schools with large numbers of poor students were more likely to go remote.
Second, low-income students tended to fare even worse when schools went remote. They may not have had reliable internet access, a quiet room in which to work or a parent who could take time off from work to help solve problems.
Together, these factors mean that school closures were what economists call a regressive policy, widening inequality by doing the most harm to groups that were already vulnerable.
A catch-up effort
Congress has tried to address the learning loss by allocating about $190 billion for schools in pandemic rescue bills. That amounts to more than $3,500 for the average K-12 student in public school.
Rodríguez, the Education Department official, said he was encouraged by how schools were using the money. One strategy with a documented track record is known as high-dosage tutoring, he noted. Sessions can involve three or four students, receiving at least a half-hour of targeted instruction a few times a week.
Kane is more worried about how schools are using the federal money. He thinks many are spending a significant chunk of it on nonacademic programs, like new technology. “I’m afraid that while school agencies are planning a range of activities for catch-up, their plans are just not commensurate with the losses,” he said.
By the time schools realize that many students remain far behind, the federal money may be gone.
What might have been
Were many of these problems avoidable? The evidence suggests that they were. Extended school closures appear to have done much more harm than good, and many school administrators probably could have recognized as much by the fall of 2020.
In places where schools reopened that summer and fall, the spread of Covid was not noticeably worse than in places where schools remained closed. Schools also reopened in parts of Europe without seeming to spark outbreaks.
In October 2020, Oster wrote a piece in The Atlantic headlined “Schools Aren’t Superspreaders,” and she told me this week that the evidence was pretty clear even earlier. By the fall of 2020, many people were no longer staying isolated in their homes, which meant that reopened schools did not create major new risks.
The Washington Post recently profiled a district in Colorado where schools reopened quickly, noting that no children were hospitalized and many thrived. “We wanted it to be as normal as possible,” Chris Taylor, the president of the school board, said.
Hundreds of other districts, especially in liberal communities, instead kept schools closed for a year or more. Officials said they were doing so to protect children and especially the most vulnerable children. The effect, however, was often the opposite.
Over the past two years, the U.S. has suffered two very different Covid problems. Many Americans have underreacted to the pandemic, refusing to take lifesaving vaccines. Many others have overreacted, overlooking the large and unequal costs of allowing Covid to dominate daily life for months on end.
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