The New Normal: Projecting The Impact Of COVID-19 On Education

The New Normal: Projecting The Impact Of COVID-19 On Education

11:15pm Dec 06, 2020
The auditorium at R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem. Instruction for students at RJR high school has been online since the beginning of the 2020 school year. GABRIEL MAISONNAVE/WFDD

You wake up, grab some breakfast, get to that first-period class, onto the second period, then third, fourth, some after-school activities, homework, and then you rinse and repeat. Well, not since March.

The routine of every high school student in America has been upended with the coronavirus pandemic. The shift to online learning during the Spring of 2020 meant adapting to a new normal of synchronous and asynchronous lessons, connectivity issues, and virtual backgrounds. For some students, this change was seamless. They embraced the newfound freedom that came from attending school without leaving their homes. For others, it meant losing the support system that the school used to provide them.

It’s safe to say that the changes brought by the pandemic will leave a lasting mark on the lives of every student. However, because we are still very much in the middle of the fight against the novel coronavirus, it is hard to say exactly in which ways the pandemic will affect children’s education.

Studies have shown that learning, or achievement, slowly declines when school is not in session. For example, during the summer months, researchers have found that the flow of resources students have access to is reduced and this results in a decline in learning, particularly in mathematics. So, when classes resume in the fall, any given group of students will start the school year learning from a slightly different place. According to Jim Soland, Associate Professor of Education at the Curry School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia and Affiliated Research Fellow at NWEA, because of the pandemic, whenever we’re able to go back to “normal,” this disparity will be even greater.

“We would expect more variability in terms of achievement," explained Soland. "So there’d be a wider range of what students know and can do in any given classroom than there might’ve been in any other year.” 

To make this prediction, during the Spring of 2020, Soland and the researchers at NWEA, looked at available research on the impact that summer holidays, weather-related school closures, and absenteeism have on learning. They created a model to help determine how COVID-related closures and shifts to online learning during the last three months of the 2019-2020 school year would affect the following year.

“And so one of the first takeaways we had was that students would likely make 65% of the learning gains that they do in a typical year in reading and 40 to 50% in math,” said Soland.

While it is hard to say if these numbers would hold for the 2021-2022 school year, it’s likely that the levels of variability in knowledge among students will remain high due to known challenges in access to online resources for some students and different levels of support that they might receive from their parents at home during the current school year.

“We did the projections separately for low-income and high-income schools and there were indications that achievement gaps between students in those schools would widen, particularly in mathematics,” added Soland.

While all this might seem dire, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

“At least historically, students who tend to see the biggest learning decline during the summer when they’re out of school are some of the ones who make the biggest gains the following year. And the hope is that we’ll see some of that, that things will return to normal a little bit,” said Soland.

So, only time will tell.

For the most up-to-date information on coronavirus in North Carolina, visit our Live Updates blog here. WFDD wants to hear your stories — connect with us and let us know what you’re experiencing.