Most public schools completed their first quarter in October, and school boards across North Carolina have begun to reassess their learning plans for the second quarter and beyond.
Some boards of education have initiated the process of bringing all children back into the classroom, but others have opted to keep school buildings closed until January. At last count, approximately one in four districts will require some or all students to continue remote learning for at least the remainder of the calendar year, and it is likely that additional districts follow suit after the election.
Parents with children in these districts should be alarmed by decisions that continue to keep students out of the classroom. There are minimal health risks associated with in-person schooling. Moreover, the research consensus is that, for most students, remote learning is significantly inferior to classroom learning. The resultant learning loss will produce a lifetime of lower wages for the student and, as the economy absorbs lower-skilled and less productive workers into the economy, potentially trillion-dollar GDP losses for the nation. Moreover, low-income, black, and Hispanic students will be more likely to sustain learning and wage losses, exacerbating the achievement gap in the short term and the skills gap in the long term.
Researchers will not have access to standardized test scores until late 2021 at the earliest, so they have created models that estimate the educational and economic effects of coronavirus mitigation measures. These models combine conventional research on educational inputs and outcomes with specialized studies of schooling and employment before and after disruptive events, such as natural disasters. As such, findings are instructive but should be interpreted with caution.
In one of the first studies to estimate learning loss due to COVID-19, researchers at the Northwest Evaluation Association, University of Virginia, and Brown University projected the average academic growth trajectory between the start of the shutdown and the beginning of the current school year. They estimated that students started the school year with approximately 63–68% of the learning gains in reading and with 37–50% of the learning gains in mathematics than they otherwise would have had in a typical school year. Continued school building closures during the school year enlarge these deficiencies.
Learning loss is not equally distributed across subjects. Neither is it equally distributed across grade levels and demographic groups. A recent study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health modeled the effects of COVID-19 school closures on the acquisition of reading skills among kindergarteners. The bad news is that the predicted rate of reading ability gain in kindergarten children “will decrease 66% during COVID-19 school closures compared to what they would normally have in the business-as-usual scenario.” The good news is that kindergarten children who have books read to them daily can offset some of the loss. This is one reason why, starting in March, the John Locke Foundation began urging families to adopt independent reading plans, particularly for young children.
Understandably, researchers worry that disadvantaged students and other at-risk populations that already tend to struggle academically will fall further behind. McKinsey and Company published a noteworthy modeling study in June with the ominous but accurate title, “COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime.” Indeed, they estimated that if large-scale in-class instruction does not resume until January 2021, the average student will have fallen behind by the equivalent of seven months of learning. For low-income, black, and Hispanic students, the loss may be much greater. The estimated learning losses for Hispanic and black student were approximately 9.2 months and 10.3 months, respectively. Low-income children will be more than a year behind their counterparts.
These learning losses have real life consequences for current students and the nation’s economy. McKinsey researchers estimate that the average K–12 student in the United States “could lose $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings (in constant 2020 dollars), or the equivalent of a year of full-time work, solely as a result of COVID-19–related learning losses.” The corresponding GDP loss could be between $173 billion to $271 billion a year over the next 20 years.
GDP declines may be even larger. In their recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study, “The Economic Impacts of Learning Losses,” Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann conclude that the “magnitude of the long run losses associated with the disruption in schooling are truly huge.” A learning loss equivalent to one-third of a school year will produce a total economic loss of $14.2 trillion in the United States alone. The loss of two-thirds of a school year will yield a loss of $28 trillion.
Obviously, the magnitude of the learning loss for individuals students depends on the quality of instruction, parental involvement, and numerous other factors. But state lawmakers would be wise to consider lengthening the school day and year, intensive tutoring, and other large-scale remediation efforts specifically designed to serve those who are furthest behind.