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The concept of “learning loss” has traditionally been an issue that educators deal with exclusively in the summer months. Here in 2021, however, learning loss has taken on a whole new meaning as the prevalence of both virtual classrooms and hybrid-style remote/in-person learning has led to growing concerns about how students’ knowledge retention is affected.

Dan Jorgensen, PhD, of the Colorado Department of Education’s School Improvement and Planning Unit is one of many education leaders who is concerned about learning loss in the wake of COVID-19. “If schools are to effectively address the learning loss created by the pandemic, it is imperative that they know the extent of the loss along with the most effective evidence-based strategies to support our students’ growth moving forward,” said Jorgensen.

The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students is still very much being processed by the education community. While research on learning loss as it pertains specifically to coronavirus-related teaching adjustments is still in its infancy, a fair amount of existing data can be applied to address the issue.

In recent months, several Regional Education Laboratories have taken research from previous studies and recontextualized the relevant data into resources that educators and education leaders alike can use to combat learning loss stemming from the pandemic.

Last summer, REL Central hosted a webinar titled “Personalizing Instruction to Address COVID-19 Learning Gaps” that explored ways in which existing personalized and competency-based learning methods might be used to overcome pandemic-related learning disruptions. A 2020 Ask-A-REL response from REL Northwest likewise repurposed several summer-related learning loss resources that educators looking to mitigate remote learning loss issues could use. Produced by REL Mid-Atlantic, the fact sheet Keeping Pace: Strategies for Ensuring Equitable Continuity of Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic also presents previous research that can be applied to the problem-laden 2020-21 academic year.

While exact figures are still being determined, the pandemic has definitely shown that the extent of the “digital divide” in American education is much greater than previously thought, which has raised additional concerns regarding equity-related achievement gaps. Concerns also exist about how the pandemic has affected students from minority groups and low-income students, as the fall 2020 data was most likely missing data from these particular student populations (according to Bellwether Education Partners, an estimated three million students are missing from school as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic).

Given the extent of the issue, proactive strategies for combating learning loss are being implemented at the federal level. In a recent blog post, Institute of Education Sciences (IES) director Mark Schneider introduced a plan of action to combat pandemic-related learning loss that focused on understanding the crisis and accelerating discovery, responding to the crisis with new tools to help students catch up, and making sure the most high-need students don’t get left behind. By focusing on these three areas, IES is creating and supporting an infrastructure that will combat learning loss and developing an ongoing, data-based system that will benefit students and educators beyond COVID-19.

As previously addressed by the IES in its Operation Reverse the Loss, there is high interest in how tutoring can be used to mitigate pandemic-related learning loss. Brown University recently released A Blueprint for Scaling Tutoring Across Public Schools, which proposes a permanent national tutoring program.

These new, large-scale strategies will hopefully help to alleviate nationwide learning loss, which initial research suggests might be rather extensive. Data released in November 2020 by the Northwest Evaluation Association provided a comprehensive national overview on pandemic-related learning loss: Learning During COVID-19: Initial Findings on Students’ Reading and Math Achievement and Growth. The data showed that reading loss was relatively minimal (based on test scores) and math was the subject hardest hit, with scores dropping an average of 5-10 percentile points when compared with 2019.

As the education community continues to assess the damage done by COVID-19 to student learning and form a more comprehensive response to pandemic-related learning loss, using preexisting data to help combat the issue will hopefully help reduce its overall impact.