“COVID learning loss.” A phrase to strike fear into the heart of any parent — or if not fear, then at least frustration and fatigue. 

Each chapter of this era has brought a new set of educational challenges. Teachers, schools, and even countries have had to innovate throughout the pandemic years. They’ve developed technologies and changed testing. They’ve continually refigured both lesson plans and year plans. Despite their best efforts, COVID education obstacles still cost children months of their education.

It hasn’t been easy on parents either. You’ve had to be your child’s advocate and sometimes their teacher. It’s okay to be tired. We all are, and you’re not in this alone. 

As another school year draws to a close, it’s time to take stock of the situation. How has COVID impacted education? And how can you help your student succeed going forward? There’s good news as well as bad and resources available for both you and your child.

A student suffering from Covid learning loss

What Is COVID Learning Loss?

There’s an intense debate over the term “COVID learning loss” and whether to use those words at all. Some people fear that students will despair if we pay too much attention to perceived deficits or that the phrase will stigmatize less-advantaged students, who suffered the greatest setbacks. 

For these reasons, alternative terms such as “COVID learning recovery” and “COVID unfinished learning” have started to circulate as well. Whichever term you prefer, the important thing is to focus on future achievement instead of mourning past losses.

But what exactly has been lost during the pandemic? Where are students underperforming compared to non-pandemic classes and why?

How Has COVID affected students?

First some good news. Learning loss due to COVID isn’t like summer learning loss, which is a widespread phenomenon that affects students during the summer break. Over the summer, students who don’t participate in enrichment programs tend to forget course material, and teachers often spend the first couple weeks of fall in review.

In fact, the phrase "learning loss" can be misleading when discussing COVID 19 and education. Students have made progress during the pandemic. They haven’t forgotten things they once knew. The loss they’ve suffered is relative to projections about where they “should” be, evaluations made with respect to pre-pandemic classes.

There’s also a difference between learning loss and schooling loss.  Children learn. They can’t help it. No one knows that better than a parent — particularly a parent who’s ever listened as a child repeats something you really wish they hadn’t overheard.

The pandemic has been brutal. It’s affected children’s mental health and social development as well as compromised their schooling. But they’ve also become more self-sufficient and more technology-literate. They’ve probably benefited from more time with you. You’ve certainly benefitted from more time with them.

Yes, COVID learning loss is real, and it’s important that you help your child overcome it. Just don’t lose perspective. Children are always more resilient than we think they are.

How Much Learning Has Been Lost?

While school shutdowns and distance learning may be the biggest contributors to loss, other coronavirus disruptions have affected students and continue to do so. Quarantines, staff shortages, and growing ranges of student needs all make education harder. 

Increased absenteeism also holds students back — or even leads them to drop out. Unless the situation changes, the coming years could see more than a million additional students fail to graduate high school.

That doesn’t mean that the students showing up are out of the woods. At the end of the 2021 school year, research conducted by McKinsey & Company showed that students were on average five months behind in math and four months behind in reading.

The current year has gone more smoothly, but even the latest numbers reveal an ongoing struggle. Zearn, a math curriculum provider used by many schools, tracks total student progress in online math coursework. As of the week ending March 27th, student progress still had decreased by 7.4% compared to January 2020.

COVID Learning Loss: The Best Ways to Help Your Student Recover

There you have it — the COVID impact on education. Now, what can you do about it?

A lot. You have power. You have resources and opportunities. You have a terrific kid who only needs a little help and encouragement to thrive. Here’s how to provide just that.

Stay Positive

It’s difficult to exaggerate the impact of attitude. The first step to success is believing that you can succeed. That goes for you as well as for your kid. Negative thinking is contagious, so don’t let it take hold.

You need to find the right balance between validating their experience and insisting that they can catch up. Acknowledge their personal and environmental blocks, but don’t monumentalize them or accept a defeatist attitude. 

Promote Reading

While reading scores haven’t declined as sharply as math scores, a lot of students still aren’t reading at grade level. That was true before the pandemic and more so now. 

Read to them, with them, around them. Reading parents create reading children. Talk to them about their books and even yours, when appropriate.

Take them to the library, and encourage them to find books on their interests. You should worry less about the content than about the activity. While you want them to challenge themselves, they will develop comprehension skills and expand their vocabularies whether they’re reading a novel or a book on the history of skateboarding.

If your child would rather avoid the written word, consider implementing some kind of rewards system. But try to avoid portraying books as the yucky vegetables they need to get through before dessert.

Make Room for Learning at Home

Set them up for success with distance-learning best practices and create a dedicated space for their education. 

Make room in your schedules and lives, too. Let them see you asking questions of the world, and find the answers together. Bring them into your passion for ancient history or love of gardening. Take a trip to an art museum or go on a nature hike. 

Bad attitudes may be contagious, but so is enthusiasm. 

Get Help With Math and Science

For the best results, try high-dosage tutoring — one-on-one or small-group tutoring several times a week. Tutoring results in bigger gains than other interventions, leading to the largest improvement in academic performance and learning recovery.

While you might make a great reading cheerleader, generally speaking, parents don't make good math tutors. You may not know or remember more advanced topics, but the parent-child dynamic doesn’t make for effective learning in this area even if you do.

There are many resources to help you find a math tutor or one for upper-level science courses. You may know fellow parents who’ve had good experiences with a particular person or program. Your child’s school or local community organizations also may have enrichment opportunities designed to help students hit by the pandemic. 

We happen to know some excellent private tutors ourselves. 

Engage With Their Schoolwork

Do you know what they’re learning about in school this month? Ask them about it. Your interest will reinforce theirs. 

Want more ways to engage?

  • Help them plan out larger projects and study schedules.
  • Quiz them from their notes or school materials.
  • Ask them to explain things to you. Nothing reinforces concepts like teaching them yourself.
  • Find community outings that tie into course material. 
  • Discuss study skills such as note-taking, test preparation, and class participation.

Remember that you don’t always have to have the right answers. Sometimes it’s enough to direct them to the right questions.

Take Advantage of the Summer

If only you and your child had a few months to devote to learning recovery…

In fact, you do. Dedicate your child’s summer to their education. Ask teachers for programs they recommend or research local opportunities. Look into summer reading programs at libraries or bookstores.

If you want them to develop math skills and confidence, enroll them in summer math-intensive tutoring. With no school-assigned homework to complete or test to take, we can focus on addressing core issues and giving students the tools they need to ace any math class.

As your family addresses COVID learning loss, remember that not all disruption is a bad thing. You’ve been given an opportunity to engage with your child’s education and ensure that they have everything they need going forward.