Policy Analysis | December 2020
Assessing Learning Loss Risk During COVID-19 and Beyond
By early April 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, every state in the SLC region had ordered or recommended schools be closed to in-person learning and developed a remote learning structure.1 With the ongoing public health emergency continuing to affect K-12 students, states are dealing with "learning loss" concerns as students fall behind due to interrupted schedules, the inability of families to provide support, lack of educational support, unproductive remote learning systems and an inability to connect with teachers and fellow students. Nationally, in November 2020, it was reported that more than 60 percent of students attended school in districts offering some form of in-person learning.2 However, as of December 9, 2020, only a reported 32.5 percent of K‑12 students participated in full-time in-person learning, while 50.8 percent and 16.7 percent, respectively, were enrolled in fully remote or hybrid learning plans, a sizeable decrease in traditional in-person learning.3
According to state-specific information published by EdWeek Research Center, the in-house research division for Education Week, 23 states face a higher or much higher risk of learning loss due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic. As the length of the pandemic remains uncertain, its impact will continue to roil across educational systems during the coming school years. As a result of nationwide standardized testing waivers for the 2019-2020 school year, it may take time until the full impact of the pandemic's effect on student performance is quantified. However, recent projections suggest that student achievement in math, in particular, decreased by five to 10 points during the fall 2020 semester compared to pre-pandemic performance – particularly in grades 3 through 8.4
Policymakers may consider several policy and budgetary solutions to address the risk areas in which students most need assistance and outline a strategy to prevent academic loss on a generational scale. This SLC Policy Analysis compares regional and state learning loss risk factors, specifically focusing on four issues:
- Family instructional support: the weekly hours household members spent on all teaching activities with children;*
- Phone or video teacher contact: the weekly hours students spent in contact with teachers;
- Internet availability: uninterrupted home internet available for educational purposes; and
- Device availability: consistent availability of devices at home for educational purposes.
* The Census Bureau defines household members as all people occupying a place of residence, whether related or not.
Overall National and Regional Learning Loss Risk
Nationally, the median time a family spent each week on teaching activities with children in their household was nine hours. Additionally, there is a disparity in home internet connectivity, with only 72.4 percent of households reporting internet access is consistently available and only 70.6 percent of households reporting devices always are available for learning. Of additional concern is the lack of student attendance and engagement, as the reported national median of weekly student-to-teacher contact only is two hours and, in some states, as many as 2 percent of public school students have gone months without checking-in with their teachers.
After drawing upon the EdWeek report's combined risk categorizations, and separating states based on their membership in The Council of State Governments' regions, the Midwest and South are the most susceptible to coronavirus-related learning loss. The overall risk of learning loss reflects aggregated state performance across instructional support and home technology access risk factors to provide a relative sense of comparability when it comes to the pandemic's impact on state educational opportunities.
Table 1: Regional Learning Loss Risk Comparison
|Region||Lower Risk||Medium Risk||Higher Risk||Much Higher Risk|
|East||Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont||Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C.||Delaware||n/a|
|Midwest||n/a||Illinois, Minnesota, South Dakota||Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Wisconsin||n/a|
|South||n/a||Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia||Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia||Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri|
|West||Idaho||Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming||Alaska, Montana, Nevada||Hawaii|
Source: EdWeek Research Center and U.S. Census Bureau.5
As Table 1 illustrates, overall, the Midwest and South have the highest risks of learning loss due to the pandemic's impact, while the East and West fare slightly better. The East features five of the six lowest risk states (the sixth, Idaho, is in the West), while the South includes the three highest risk states.
Nationally, three SLC states – Kentucky, Louisiana and Missouri – are at a much higher risk of coronavirus-related learning loss due to technological concerns and lower levels of family support. No state in the South registered as lower risk, while five SLC states are rated as medium risk.
State-by-State Learning Loss Risk Comparisons
The learning loss risk factors identified in this analysis are focused on disparities in technological, educational and family support. The data displayed in Table 2 compares state-by-state (as well as regional) percentages of family support and teacher-student interactions at or above the national median, as well as internet availability and device access at home.
Table 2: Learning Loss Risk Factor Comparisons
Percent of families at or above the national median for weekly hours spent on all teaching activities with children (nine hours)
Percent of families at or above the national median for weekly hours students spent in video/phone contact with teachers (two hours)
Percent of families with home internet consistently available for educational purposes
Percent of families with devices consistently available for educational purposes
† For comparison purposes, while the District of Columbia is included in this data set, other territories are excluded.
Source: EdWeek Research Center and U.S. Census Bureau.6
As Table 2 demonstrates, regionally, the South and Midwest struggle the most with family support, teacher interactions, internet availability and device access. Specifically, the South scores the lowest in three of the four risk categories and is tied with the Midwest regarding internet availability.
With concerns growing over a potential "COVID Generation" of students demonstrating stunted academic development, policymakers are exploring options to ensure that equitable and adaptive policies are in place to allow every student to have a chance at success in this new, unprecedented environment. While the long-term impacts of pandemic-driven academic disruptions are unknown, preliminary findings suggest that, during the fall 2020 semester, students across the country in grades 3 through 8 performed at pre-pandemic levels in reading, while achievement in math experienced sizable decreases. However, experts acknowledge that current findings may underestimate the virus' impact on learning loss or stagnation for hard-to-reach and vulnerable student populations.7
During legislative sessions in 2021, and beyond, lawmakers may need to focus resources on areas where student support is lacking to negate the prolonged educational fallout of COVID-19 on K-12 students and begin the long road to academic recovery in earnest. In the interim, many SLC states have taken steps to address these learning loss risk factors. Some key actions include:
- Providing computers and laptops to students in Mississippi for distance learning;8
- Delivering books to rural students in Tennessee to prevent a "COVID-slide" in literacy rates;9
- Planning a "New Deal" for internet access to close the digital divide and create equitable learning opportunities for hard-to-reach students in Kentucky;10 and
- Investing federal Coronavirus Relief Funds to assist families with K-12 students in purchasing devices and/or wireless hotspots in Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina and Tennessee.11
While more support will continue to be necessary, the convening of a new Congress in January may create momentum for additional coronavirus-relief to states. A proposed bipartisan measure to provide support, prior to the end of the year, would provide $82 billion in education funding and more support for rural broadband infrastructure.12 An alternate proposal, being discussed by congressional leadership, would prioritize educational support.13 Additional federal aid, if available, may be useful as states can anticipate facing a panoply of budgetary needs during their 2021 legislative sessions – and beyond.
Regardless of the toll the pandemic has taken on the entire educational system, the broader policy issues for policymakers are how to achieve structural changes in the educational system and, more specifically, the delivery of high quality education to every student in the nation. The South is no stranger to disruptions in the delivery of services, educational or otherwise, to its citizens. Learning from past disruptions, such as hurricanes, policymakers should avoid pursuing remedies that, at best, temporarily bridge the gap between pre- and post-disaster recovery in the short-term.
While the United States struggles to return to normalcy, the long-term implications of the pandemic have revealed a deficit in our nation's infrastructure, specifically as it pertains to education. Policymakers now are more aware of the many disparities within our communities. A broad and comprehensive strategy to build an infrastructure that benefits all citizens – not just in anticipation of future long- or short-term disruptions – and that provides equal access to all forms of learning, is of paramount importance.
1 "Map: Coronavirus and School Closures in 2019-2020," Education Week, September 16, 2020. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/map-coronavirus-and-school-closures-in-2019-2020/2020/03.
2 Matt Barnum and Sarah Darville. "Surges in COVID cases are upending school reopening plans across the U.S." Chalkbeat, November 13, 2020. https://www.chalkbeat.org/2020/11/13/21563910/rising-covid-cases-derailing-school-reopenings-across-us.
3 Dennis Roche. "K-12 School Reopening Trends." Burbio, November 9, 2020. https://info.burbio.com/school-tracker-update-dec-7/.
4 Megan Kuhfield et al. "Learning during COVID-19: Initial findings on students' reading and math achievement and growth," NWEA, November 2020. https://www.nwea.org/content/uploads/2020/11/Collaborative-brief-Learning-during-COVID-19.NOV2020.pdf.
5 Alex Harwin and Yukiko Furuya. "Coronavirus Learning Loss Risk Index Reveals Big Equity Problems," Education Week, September 2, 2020. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/09/02/coronavirus-learning-loss-index-reveals-big-equity.html.
6 "Mapping How States Stack Up on Academic Risk During COVID-19," Education Week, September 2, 2020. https://www.edweek.org/ew/collections/quality-counts-2020-state-achievement/mapping-how-states-stack-up-on-academic.html.
7 Megan Kuhfield et al. "How is COVID-19 affecting student learning? Initial findings from fall 2020," Brown Center Chalkboard, Brookings, December 3, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2020/12/03/how-is-covid-19-affecting-student-learning/.
8 Emily Wagster Pettus. "Mississippi schools receive computers for distance learning," The Commercial Dispatch, December 2, 2020. https://www.cdispatch.com/news/article.asp?aid=84965.
9 Meghan Mangrum. "State launches new book delivery program for students in rural counties," The Tennessean, October 21, 2020. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2020/10/21/governors-early-literacy-foundation-launches-new-book-delivery-program-rural-tennessee/5992667002/.
10 Billy Kobin. "As remote learning continues, leaders say Kentucky needs a 'New Deal' for internet access," The Courier-Journal, August 3, 2020. https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/education/2020/08/03/leaders-say-kentucky-needs-new-deal-student-internet-access/5572555002/.
11 Kathryn de Wit. "States Tap Federal CARES Act to Expand Broadband," Broadband Research Initiative, PEW Charitable Trusts, November 16, 2020. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2020/11/states-tap-federal-cares-act-to-expand-broadband.
12 Jacob Pramuk. "Bipartisan group releases Covid relief bill as Congress faces pressure to send help," CNBC, December 14, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/12/14/coronavirus-stimulus-updates-bipartisan-relief-bill-will-be-released.html.
13 Jake Sherman, Burgess Everett and Heath Caygle. "Hill leaders close in on Covid stimulus deal," Politico, December 16, 2020. https://www.politico.com/news/2020/12/16/congress-deal-covid-relief-446244.