The Pandemic Learning Deficit and How the Educational World Can Get Back on Track

boys with school supplied after the pandemic

It isn’t an understatement to say that the COVID-19 pandemic affected every aspect of life in every area of the world. From the loss of loved ones to runs on grocery stores to throttled economies and a raucous labor market, the impacts of the global crisis are easily apparent — and continue to linger.

One area hit particularly hard is the academic sector. Education, especially public education, is a group activity by its very nature. It requires large gatherings in classrooms, stadiums, and lecture halls. These things that pandemic responses shut down or severely restricted for years. Here is a brief overview of the degree of destruction caused by the pandemic, along with thoughts on how the world can collectively begin to regain its scholarly momentum.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Education

Before crunching the numbers regarding the fallout of pandemic responses on schools, let’s consider the day-to-day impact that teachers and students faced for hundreds of school days as the early pandemic played out.

Initially, the biggest issue revolved around rolling school closures. As weeks of pandemic response turned into months and then years, new challenges arose. Absenteeism was rampant. Staff shortages were chronic. Student behavior (from an uptick in general misbehavior to more serious things like violence) began to suffer under the mental and physical strain of exhausting circumstances.

A year and a half into the crisis, McKinsey was already reporting that K-12 student learning was months behind, with historically disadvantaged students taking the collapse in learning on the chin. A few months later, Pew Research shared that 61% of parents reported that the early stages of the pandemic had a negative effect on their children and 44% claimed the effect was lingering in 2022.

Brookings pointed out that the standard deviations of math test scores between 2019 and 2021 weren’t just significant. They were higher than historical equivalents, such as the negative repercussions on evacuees of Hurricane Katrina.

While there’s still a long way to go until the dust completely settles (as of this writing, the U.S. plans to formally end the Public Health Emergency in May), there’s no doubt that the damage done to the current generation of students has been both historical and astronomical.

The question is, can we reverse it?

How Can the Academic World Get Back on Track?

When educational damage takes place on as broad a scale as it did during the pandemic, it raises the question of whether the students affected can ever catch up. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem like all hope is lost.

On the contrary, in the Brookings report cited above, the educational institution points out that the damage isn’t enough to constitute labeling the current group of students as a “lost generation.” However, there is absolutely a lot of catching up to do.

In-Class Interventions

This starts with boots-on-the-ground interventions that target students both across the board and in particularly hard-hit demographics. Some are considering:

  • Smaller class sizes and longer school days to help slowly address the issue over time.
  • Intensive, high-dosage tutoring (both for individual cases and in general) is also an option.
  • Ramping up summer school efforts is an obvious choice, as well.

These all make sense in theory, but each option creates its own tangential concerns. For instance, asking students to stay in school longer could lead to an exhaustive backlash. Mental health concerns are another major side effect that the pandemic had on students. Summer school could spread out the workload. But, Brookings claims that finding teachers who are willing to forgo their summer break may be harder than it sounds.

Tutoring Outside of the Classroom

Tutoring is a promising option. However, expecting schools to handle the sheer quantity of demand with internal staff is unrealistic. There are third-party organizations that can help with tutoring. But, these need carefully vetted to ensure they genuinely help.

For example, professional tutoring services like Teachers on Call may be a good fit since they have a proven track record, pre-date the pandemic, and are already staffed with a stable of professional tutors. If administrators can find enough services like these (and they, in turn, aren’t overwhelmed by the overflow demand), tutoring may be one of the most effective options available over the long term.

Along with addressing current instructive concerns, the academic world must consider the threat of future crises. The school system was caught flat-footed when the pandemic struck. Teachers, administrators, parents, and students alike scrambled to find ways to maintain their education within quarantines and social distancing restrictions.

Moving forward, it’s essential that academic leadership invest in building educational infrastructures that can withstand temporary shifts to remote learning. This includes things like building the right tech stacks and training personnel for a virtual learning setting.

Fighting for a Brighter Future

There is a lot of ground to make up in the education sector at the moment. Using the lessons of the past few years to prepare for the future is also important.

Above all, educators, students, and the communities that support them must remain united. They need to collaborate together to regain lost ground. Thus, they pave the way for a brighter academic future than anyone could have hoped for in the dark and depressing early days of the pandemic just a few short years ago.

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