Mitigating COVID-19-Induced Learning Loss Along the P-16 Education Continuum

By Stephanie M. Murphy

5 takeaways from NEBHE’s Legislative Advisory Committee meeting …

At its peak, the COVID-19 pandemic forced 55 million American children temporarily out of school. While many education systems have attempted varying degrees of remote learning, many researchers accept that the closures will produce substantial losses in learning, according to recent research by the World Bank Group and by Megan Kuhfeld et al.

A serious concern is that these short-term learning losses could continue to accumulate long after children return to school, resulting in large and permanent learning losses as many students who fall behind during school closures never catch up. Particularly at risk are students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. Voices in the field are sounding the alarm on the potential long-term effects of the pandemic on the high school-to-college pipeline and the need to take quick, thoughtful action now to prevent  a “lost COVID cohort.”

On March 19, NEBHE’s Legislative Advisory Committee convened national experts to explore the implications of a COVID-19-related dip in postsecondary transitions due to K-12 learning loss and to share legislative strategies for keeping New England’s students on track to higher education enrollment, attainment and economic mobility.

Expert presenters included Monica Martinez, director of strategy initiatives at the Washington, D.C.-based Learning Policy Institute, Angélica Infante-Green, the Rhode Island commissioner of elementary and secondary education, and Ryan Reyna, senior director of Maryland-based Education Strategy Group. Here are five takeaways from their presentations:

BIPOC and low-income students have been disproportionately affected by learning disruptions during the pandemic.

While 38% of white K-12 students received average or above-average remote instruction, only 14% of their Black peers and 21% of their Hispanic peers received the same quality of education, according to a recent report by McKinsey & Company. While only 10% of white students received no instruction during the pandemic, 40% of Black students and 30% of Hispanic students received no instruction during this period. Yet, the study’s most alarming finding is the sharp income divide among our nation’s K-12 students: 100% of low-income students received low-quality remote instruction or no instruction at all.

Enrollment in public education has declined in New England.

Early in the pandemic, Rhode Island used federal stimulus funds to monitor student progress and gather data relative to learning loss. The data show that the most pronounced enrollment declines have occurred among Pre-K and kindergarten students. Across all grade levels, the most marked enrollment declines have occurred among multilingual learners, differently abled students, students of color and students living in poverty. Furthermore, of those students who are absent, there has been an increase in chronic absence. And lastly, fall interim assessments show that students are further behind in mathematics than in reading and English-language arts.

Rhode Island’s LEAP Task Force is engaging educational experts, practitioners, families, students and community members to develop and implement strategies for mitigating learning loss. 

Led by Commissioner Infante-Green, Rhode Island provides a forum for collective learning from national experts and interaction with statewide stakeholders to address the state’s learning recovery challenge. A task force recently released the following priorities that will drive the development of the recommendations they make to the commissioner:

  • Close the digital divide
  • Engage and energize students and families, educators and community members, in a statewide back-to-school campaign
  • Ensure all students have varied access to high-quality and personalized support from adults, through extended learning, partnerships for before- or afterschool and summer learning programs
  • Universally screen all students and align resources to need
  • Improve and support student transitions across grades and systems.

All meetings are open to the public and are hosted on RIDE’s YouTube page.

Even prior to the pandemic, Black, Hispanic and low-income students’ chance of proceeding into higher education directly after high school was less than 50%.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has only exacerbated this problem. Researchers worry that the high school graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 are at risk of becoming “the nation’s lost cohort,” as the leak in the high-school-to-college pipeline is likely to become a flood. To make matters worse, this issue arises at a time when earning a postsecondary credential is the surest path to economic opportunity. While we don’t yet know how the economy will change in response to COVID-19, early data shows that the occupations that are disappearing the fastest are those that require the least amount of education, such as those in the retail, hospitality and support sectors, as well as those in industries that are experiencing high rates of automation. In short, economic mobility will be increasingly difficult to achieve without a high-quality postsecondary education.

Higher education leaders and state policymakers must take action now to mitigate the short- and long-term effects of K-12 learning loss for higher education and workforce development.

According to Education Strategy Group, in the short-term, federal stimulus funds should be used to support postsecondary transitions. Leaders must analyze enrollment data to better understand student groups most impacted by the pandemic, expand mentoring programs to help with postsecondary advising, and offer free dual-credit courses to recent graduates and rising seniors. In the longer term, legislators should pass laws that provide financial incentives for successful student transitions, require FAFSA completion, create a statewide postsecondary advising program, implement a direct admission initiative, and prioritize the most predictive measures of postsecondary success in data collection, reporting and accountability.

Stephanie M. Murphy is the associate director of policy research and analysis at NEBHE.



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