Skip Navigation

Ask a REL Response

Learning loss during COVID — December 2020


What does the research say about K–12 learning loss during COVID-19?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and resources on student learning loss during the pandemic. The sources we searched included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Access to the full articles is free unless indicated otherwise.

Research References

Allensworth, E., & Schwartz, N. (2020). School practices to address student learning loss. EdResearch for Recovery Project. Full text available from

From the abstract: “This brief is one in a series aimed at providing K-12 education decision makers and advocates with an evidence base to ground discussions about how to best serve students during and following the novel coronavirus pandemic. Learning losses are likely to show up differently across grades and subjects, with intensive recovery needs concentrated in the early grades and among already struggling students. Supportive school environments and strong teacher-student relationships speed recovery from learning loss. High-dosage tutoring that is directly tied to classroom content — helping students succeed in their coursework — can substantially accelerate learning in both math and reading for the most struggling students. Extended learning time interventions, including weeklong acceleration academies staffed with highly effective teachers and some double dose math structures, show strong evidence of effectiveness. Strong systems to monitor for early student warning signs paired with strong norms and routines help students recover emotionally and engage academically. Compressed content, grade retention, and enhanced Response to Intervention (RTI) show less evidence that they substantially shift learning outcomes for struggling students, and some have potential adverse long-term consequences.”

Borman, G. D. (2020). What can be done to address learning losses due to school closures? Center on Education Policy, Equity and Governance, University of Southern California and Policy Analysis for California Education. Full text available from

From the introduction: “With nationwide school closures due to COVID-19, over 50 million of the country’s 57 million K–12 students are out of school until next fall. If (and that remains a big if) the 2020–21 academic year begins on schedule, most students will have experienced a full 5- to 6-month hiatus from school. Of course, COVID-19 also represents a simultaneous healthcare and economic crisis without precedent. The pandemic has caused rising unemployment, psychological distress, and great uncertainty for U.S. families. These hardships are unequally distributed, affecting low-income families and families of color most significantly. The realities of the digital divide have been highlighted by many schools’ attempts to provide distance learning. Without question, this crisis will impact our country’s education system in unforeseen ways for years to come. It is possible that the pandemic will be worse for education than the recent Great Recession and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, both of which greatly reduced student achievement, especially among economically disadvantaged and minority students. Though the current situation is unprecedented, a long history of prior research on summer learning may help inform policymakers and educators about how this extended ‘break’ from school might affect students. Lessons may also be learned from past research on summer learning programs. Are there particular strategies or ideas that may help students continue learning or make up for learning losses suffered during the pandemic? Because school-based summer programs may not be feasible due to continued stay-at-home orders, are there quality home-based summer learning options or other ways to make up ground when schools reopen in the fall?”

Council of Chief State School Officers. (2020, July 14). Restart and recovery: Considerations for teaching and learning.Author. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “State and local education leaders around the country are tackling the tremendous and urgent task of planning, launching, and sustaining a strong school year in the wake of COVID-19 related school closures. While school may look different this fall than what families are accustomed to, the focus remains the same: every student receives a high-quality education. This is true whether that means learning remotely, in person, or through a hybrid of the two. To support leaders as they strive for equity, are mindful of health and safety, and focus on teaching and learning, CCSSO today released…[this resource, which] builds on other critical resources aligned with CCSSO’s Restart and Recovery Framework, which is designed to assist states as they work to reopen school buildings and recover student learning loss in the 2020-21 school year… Developed to respond to requests from state education leaders, Restart and Recovery: Considerations for Teaching and Learning was created with a wide body of organizations and experts, as well as state and local education leaders from more than 30 states across the country. The resource aims to help districts make decisions about operations, instruction, and social-emotional learning while delivering on their promise to ensure an excellent, equitable education for all students.”

Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., & Viruleg, E. (2020). COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime. McKinsey & Company. Full text available from

From the introduction: “…In this article, we explore the possible long-term damage of COVID-19–related school closures on low-income, black, and Hispanic Americans, and on the U.S. economy. To that end, we created statistical models to estimate the potential impact of school closures on learning. The models were based on academic studies of the effectiveness of remote learning relative to traditional classroom instruction for three different kinds of students. We then evaluated this information in the context of three different epidemiological scenarios.”

Hanushek, E., & Woessmann, L. (2020). The economic impacts of learning losses, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 225. OECD. Full text available from

From the introduction: “The worldwide school closures in early 2020 led to losses in learning that will not easily be made up for even if schools quickly return to their prior performance levels. These losses will have lasting economic impacts both on the affected students and on each nation unless they are effectively remediated. While the precise learning losses are not yet known, existing research suggests that the students in grades 1–12 affected by the closures might expect some 3 percent lower income over their entire lifetimes. For nations, the lower long-term growth related to such losses might yield an average of 1.5 percent lower annual GDP for the remainder of the century. These economic losses would grow if schools are unable to re-start quickly. The economic losses will be more deeply felt by disadvantaged students. All indications are that students whose families are less able to support out-of-school learning will face larger learning losses than their more advantaged peers, which in turn will translate into deeper losses of lifetime earnings. The present value of the economic losses to nations reach huge proportions. Just returning schools to where they were in 2019 will not avoid such losses. Only making them better can. While a variety of approaches might be attempted, existing research indicates that close attention to the modified re-opening of schools offers strategies that could ameliorate the losses. Specifically, with the expected increase in video-based instruction, matching the skills of the teaching force to the new range of tasks and activities could quickly move schools to heightened performance. Additionally, because the prior disruptions are likely to increase the variations in learning levels within individual classrooms, pivoting to more individualised instruction could leave all students better off as schools resume. As schools move to re-establish their programmes even as the pandemic continues, it is natural to focus considerable attention on the mechanics and logistics of safe re-opening. But the long-term economic impacts also require serious attention, because the losses already suffered demand more than the best of currently considered re-opening approaches.”

Hill, P. (2020). What post-Katrina New Orleans can teach schools about addressing COVID learning losses. Center for Reinventing Public Education. Blog available from

From the introduction: “This year, the ‘summer’ break for school children will be six months long. Some learning loss is likely, but it will vary, depending on kids’ opportunities to learn during the coronavirus shutdown and on individual differences—for example, a taste for recreational reading. How can schools figure out where individual kids are? If the kids in any classroom have different degrees of learning loss, how can schools start everyone in the first place and quickly get everyone ready for grade-level material? These questions can’t be fully answered until kids come back. But we can anticipate some of the answers by looking at the last long-time disruption in schooling—in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans schools closed abruptly in early August 2005. Though a few schools located on high ground were able to start again in early 2006, the majority of children weren’t back in New Orleans schools until the following school year or later. All returning students had suffered hurricane-related trauma. Some had gone to school for a few months in Texas or other parts of Louisiana, but most were out of school until they returned to New Orleans. The situations are not identical, but post-COVID educators need to know what post-Katrina educators tried and what they learned. Earlier this month, I interviewed school heads and academic leaders whose schools received students as soon as they returned to New Orleans after Katrina. Respondents provided some important insights.”

Kuhfeld, M., & Tarasawa, B. (2020). The COVID-19 slide: What summer learning loss can tell us about the potential impact of school closures on student academic achievement. Collaborative for Student Growth at NWEA. Full text available from

From the introduction: “As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic closes schools across the nation, education systems are scrambling to meet the needs of schools, families, and 55.1 million students during these unprecedented times. The economic impacts and trauma of recent events will also have far reaching effects that will likely exacerbate long-standing opportunity gaps. While it is difficult to speculate on what missing months of school may mean for student achievement, research on seasonal learning and summer learning loss can offer some insights that can help educators, policy makers, and families understand, plan for, and address some potential impacts of this extended pause in classroom instruction when students return to school… To provide preliminary estimates of the potential impacts of the extended pause of academic instruction during the coronavirus crisis, we leverage research on summer loss and use a national sample of over five million students in grades 3–8 who took MAP® Growth™ assessments in 2017–2018. We examined how the observed typical average growth trajectory by grade for students who completed a standard length school year compares to projections under two scenarios for the closures: a COVID-19 slide, in which students showed patterns of academic setbacks typical of summers throughout an extended closure and COVID-19 slowdown, in which students maintained the same level of academic achievement they had when schools were closed.”

Lake, R., & Olson, L. (2020). Learning as we go: Principles for effective assessment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Center on Reinventing Public Education. Full text available from

From the abstract: “This paper summarizes the findings from a panel of assessment experts on diagnostic assessments and their role in helping educators and parents support student learning. Teachers, schools, and school systems will face unprecedented challenges when schools eventually reopen after pandemic-related closures. One of the central challenges will be figuring out how to meet the individual needs of students who had dramatically different experiences while schools were shuttered, and who will need dramatically different academic and nonacademic interventions and supports as schooling resumes this fall. Parents, too, will need reliable information to advocate for their children, and—if needed—to continue their education at home. Many stakeholders have recognized the likely value of diagnostic assessments in providing this information, yet others question the quality of the information existing assessments yield for diagnosing individual student needs and have expressed concern about the potential loss of instructional time and the over-remediation of students. The panel’s task was to advise the field on the state of diagnostic testing: which types of assessment are best used for what purposes.”

Lynch, K., & Hill, H. (2020). Broad-based academic supports for all students. EdResearch for Recovery Project. Abstract aavailable from and full text available from

From the introduction: “This brief is one in a series aimed at providing K–12 education decision makers and advocates with an evidence base to ground discussions about how to best serve students during and following the novel coronavirus pandemic. [The central question is] what kinds of academic supports should schools prioritize for all students across the fall?”

National Education Policy Center. (2020). Seven ways that research can guide schools’ recovery during the coronavirus. University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. Full text available from

From the introduction: “When the coronavirus pandemic struck the health and economic systems of the world, it also dealt a blow to schools, which were forced to turn immediately to remote instruction in an environment of uncertainty and fear. Most students likely saw their academic learning drop considerably, with pre-existing racial and socioeconomic inequities leading to more severe consequences for some students than for others. As schools reopen for the fall, the uncertainty and inequities remain, as educators struggle to choose from an array of choices that all seem less than ideal. In order to offer guidance at this difficult time, a group of more than 500 education researchers with diverse positions and backgrounds have issued a consensus statement on how research might inform policymaking and practice during the pandemic. The statement can be read in full here.”

Sattin-Bajaj, C., Boix-Mansilla, V., & Strom, A. (2020). Supports for students in immigrant families (Brief No. 9). EdResearch for Recovery Project. Full text available from

From the abstract: “This brief is one in a series aimed at providing K–12 education decision makers and advocates with an evidence base to ground discussions about how to best serve students during and following the novel coronavirus pandemic. It addresses one central question: What research-backed practices can school districts, schools and classroom teachers use to support immigrant-origin students’ educational success and build inclusive environments in learning contexts transformed by COVID-19? In order to answer this question, the brief breaks down the issue into three points: (1) Immigrant-origin children are the fastest growing segment of the school-age population in the U.S.; (2) Immigrant communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in terms of loss of employment, representation among frontline and essential workers, and rates of illness; and (3) Immigrant-origin students tend to have lower access to at-home resources that might support their learning during the pandemic. Based on these points, the brief provides five strategies to consider and two strategies to avoid.”

Sawchuk, S. (2020). Overcoming COVID-19 learning loss. Education Week. Full text available from

From the introduction: “…For this installment on how to address students’ learning losses, Education Week interviewed two dozen researchers, teachers, and principals, and reviewed hundreds of pages of empirical studies and planning documents to identify interventions that are well supported by research—and other approaches that are unlikely to move the needle.”

REL West note on research in progress: REL Midwest researchers are currently working with state and district officials in Illinois, Minnesota, and Ohio to help them estimate student learning loss following the extended school closures due to COVID-19. For example, REL Midwest staff are working on a descriptive analysis of possible changes to K–8 student achievement in Minnesota District 191 by examining student scores on the Formative Assessment System for Teachers (FAST) reading and mathematics assessments from the 2014/15 academic year through the first post-COVID-19 assessment period in the 2020/21 academic year. District administrators will be able to use this information to target resources to student subgroups most affected by school closures. REL Midwest plans to provide the findings to District 191 in a coaching session in late 2020 and then summarize the findings from this project in a publicly available report to be published in late 2021.

Other Organizations to Consult

Chiefs for Change –

From the website: “As the leaders of state and district education systems, we are racially and politically diverse. We live and work in regions ranging from the Northeast to the Deep South, from the Midwest, to the West Coast, to the noncontiguous states. Despite our differences, we share a vision for schools that serve all children well and are united around a core set of beliefs about what it will take to achieve that vision in communities across the nation.”

REL West note: Chiefs for Change has several resources related to this topic. See


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used:

[“Learning loss” AND (COVID OR pandemic)]

Databases and Resources

We searched Google Scholar and ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.