Unpacking Learning Loss and Its Impact on Alabama’s Students

As we move from a season of coping amid COVID-19 to one of recovery as vaccinations become more widespread, how do we capture what students have lost during the last year? According to the Great Schools Partnership, the term learning loss refers to any specific or general loss of knowledge or skills or to reversals in academic progress, most commonly due to extended gaps or discontinuities in a student’s education. Many are also referring to this as “unfinished learning” to emphasize the opportunity for growth versus something that has been lost (i.e., growth mindset). The COVID-19 pandemic certainly fits these definitions as the majority of American children learned from home while their communities were ravaged by the virus. The impact of entirely remote learning has yet to be fully realized, but we do know that the inherent inequities of our education system have only widened. While some Alabama students returned to in-person or hybrid learning as early as August, others saw school doors close last March and remain closed to this day. Many of those that remain fully-remote are in our highest poverty areas of the state, which disproportionately impacts students that need more support, not less.

We know that learning loss encapsulates multiple aspects of a student’s learning – there are both academic and social components affecting students’ holistic achievement. It is complex, and underscores historical educational inequities that have been exacerbated during the pandemic.

After months of compiling research on learning loss and hearing directly from Alabama students through an ongoing statewide student survey conducted by the A+ Student VOICES Team, we set out to more deeply define the challenges students are facing. 

Here’s our definition of learning loss and where we might focus to collectively restore the joy of learning.

The Basics: Academics are Fundamental to Learning Loss

Parents and teachers alike know that when it comes to education, reading and arithmetic are the basic foundational skills children need to be successful in school and in life. It’s been well documented that when students miss out on high-quality, in-person instruction time, they can lose ground on these important academic and life skills. We first reviewed initial research on the academic impact of learning loss last summer, highlighting the equity challenges brought on by the pandemic. 

One of the most cited sources for understanding learning loss comes from McKinsey, who, over the course of the past year, collected and analyzed the impact of COVID-19 on learning (particularly in reading and math achievement) through Fall 2020 formative assessments, dropout rates, and impact on the overall economy. The Washington Post added failing grades as a data point to consider this past December when they shared a report that the percentage of students receiving at least two failing grades in Virginia’s largest school system rose by 83% this past fall. An additional point of consideration for how to define learning loss came from the Collaborative for Student Growth at non-profit NWEA, who shared a brief that suggested the pace of learning gains had fallen off from past years.

These reports provide critical insights to close opportunity gaps exposed by the pandemic, particularly in academic achievement. The bottom line is that, if left unaddressed, students could lose 5-9 months of learning (6-12 months for students of color) on average.

Beyond the Basics: Strains on Social and Emotional Learning & Student Mental Health

The social emotional toll of COVID-19 can’t be understated. Even before the pandemic began, teachers rated mental health as one of the most pressing issues students face. A survey of more than 11,000 K-12 students ages 13 and older conducted last year revealed that 38% are more concerned about their mental well-being and 51% report being more stressed since the start of the pandemic. The survey also reported that 39% feel lonelier now. A new study from Challenge Success and NBC News released this week added additional troubling context to the strain of the pandemic on student’s mental health. Among the key findings of the study, students, particularly females and students of color, continue to experience high levels of stress and pressure. Students’ engagement with learning is especially low. Additionally, students’ relationships with adults are strong, yet appear strained in recent times. Read the full report here.  

As one Alabama high-schooler stated in a student survey conducted by the A+ Student VOICES Team, My school’s counselors are sometimes difficult to access, and there does not seem to be too much of an organized effort to address student mental health, especially stress caused by the workload.”

A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that schools with meaningful focus on student well-being  and social emotional development positively impacted students’ graduation rate. The impact was particularly significant for the most disadvantaged students. Currently, students have limited or no access to the social & emotional supports afforded by in-person learning. This could impact their academic and social development for years to come and underscores the need to embed high-quality social emotional instruction.

Lack of Social Connection in the Classroom & Access to Teachers

Learning is enriched by the social connections and the opportunities for hands-on learning forged in the classroom. Students can learn from each other in lively class discussions, benefit from group work and study groups, and make sure their questions are answered in real time. Even more, direct, in-person access to their teachers ensures that students can have their specific academic needs met by a qualified and caring adult. COVID-19 has made these types of connections much more difficult. One Alabama high-schooler stated in our survey, I feel like a community in-person could never be replaced by technology. The surrounding environment was the most important factor in my success.”

All of this has required teachers to be even more intentional in strengthening their relationships with students, especially in remote environments. The tried but true saying “kids won’t work unless they know you care” is true and even more important now.

Cancelled Extracurricular Activities & Missed Rites of Passage

Sports and enrichment are another important facet of K-12 schooling, and many students report missing out on these important opportunities for team building, physical exercise, and experiential learning. One student in our survey stated, I miss SOO much! I miss seeing familiar faces, and the faces I see are covered by masks. I miss the pep rallies, I miss the normal football and basketball seasons. I miss cheer competitions. I missed my last tennis season.”

High school students in particular often have opportunities for internships, summer or afterschool jobs, hands-on job training, and other opportunities to learn important workplace and life skills. COVID-19 has limited these in-person opportunities for students.

Finally, in a year no like no other, many of our traditional rites of passage were cancelled or moved online. Students had to forego pep rallies, homecoming, prom, and even graduation – all events that instill pride while bringing students together to celebrate each other and their schools. High school seniors are especially mourning this loss as they finish up their K-12 education altogether, missing out completely on events they waited over 12 years for. 

Lack of Access to School Meals

Approximately 50% of Alabama’s public K-12 students receive free or reduced lunch. For many of our students, schools are the main source of hot meals for breakfast and lunch. The US Department of Agriculture, the federal entity that manages child nutrition programs, provided schools with an extended waiver that allowed all public school students to receive free meals this year. This was an important step to keeping children fed. However, with an estimated 9,800 children “missing” from Alabama schools this year amid remote learning, we know there are children who are not receiving important nutrition that schools provide. 

Less Child Abuse & Neglect Reporting

Schools provide a safe space for students with troubling home lives. In December, the CDC reported that school closures, loss of income, and social isolation resulting from the pandemic increased the risk for child abuse and neglect. Alabama saw a decline last spring in reported abuse cases while children were out of school, and officials cited lack of in-person school as a contributing factor. It is common for child abuse reporting rates to decline while children are out of school, as teachers are often those who report incidents. Additionally, according to the CDC, child abuse visits to the emergency room declined sharply last year, but the number of abuse injuries requiring hospitalization remained steady, suggesting abuse was grossly unreported. 

Working Together to Meet the Needs of Students Moving Forward

The path forward will not be an easy one. As more data become available, we will continue to work to help develop solutions to support students and their achievement during such an extraordinary time. 

Addressing this will take collaboration between all state leaders and education partners to continuously adapt and provide the necessary resources to meet the current needs of students. This will also be our primary focus during the current Alabama Legislative Session and beyond. As a start, here is our Legislative Playbook which outlines just a few of our advocacy priorities, including our new proposal to expand high-quality summer and afterschool programs provided through school and community partnerships. 

As always, we will update you with more information as it comes available. Follow along with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn. We will also continue sending our weekly education news round-up, The Gist, every Friday morning with updates from the previous week. Click here to sign up. #EdInSession