When COVID-19 Learning Loss and Summer Slide Converge

This post is part of a series of articles, blog posts, and short briefs produced by EXPLO Elevate focused on supporting schools’ virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

by Sudipti Kumar | Director of Research
Ross Peters | Vice President of School Strategy (Incoming)

Learning loss in the summer months, or the “summer slide” as it is often called, is a well-documented challenge for students and schools alike. While the level at which regression actually takes place in the summer is not without controversy, there have been many studies that have articulated that the loss (whether it be weeks or months) is particularly harsh for children from economically disadvantaged communities, as well as for those children with special needs. Combined with the new reality of students experiencing significant academic decline due to the COVID-19 pandemic and cultural upheaval, the summer slide will likely be even more pronounced come fall. Below, we share research on the level of “slide” schools may be contending with when they reopen, as well as a framework schools should consider using to support their students most at-need.

Daunting COVID Slide Estimates

Researchers have noted that if we are to extrapolate to the pandemic what happens in the summer in terms of learning loss, “preliminary COVID slide estimates suggest students will return in fall 2020 with roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year. However, in mathematics, students are likely to show much smaller learning gains, returning with less than 50% of the learning gains and in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions.”

While this projection is still in the hypothetical realm and we hope is over-inflated, it still paints a stark picture of academic challenges for all students in any given school. However, the picture for economically disadvantaged students is even more grim.

A Troubling Increase in Achievement Gaps

A recent report by McKinsey & Co also highlighted how learning loss will likely be greater for low-income, Black and Hispanic children. According to their study, “the average loss in our middle epidemiological scenario is seven months. But Black students may fall behind by 10.3 months, Hispanic students by 9.2 months, and low-income students by more than a year. We estimate that this would exacerbate existing achievement gaps by 15 to 20 percent.”

If low-income students are potentially falling behind by more than a year simply due to the pandemic, let’s consider what could happen in the summer without interventions. The typical summer slide could now easily turn into over 1.5 years of academic and even social-emotional regression. With access to remote learning completely shut off during the break, students who were maybe getting some support (even if they were accessing it unequally) will now be getting none at all. That is, unless, schools are intentional about using the next few months to develop and implementing a plan for their most at-risk students.

The Framework

Below, we offer a framework for how schools should be thinking about catching up their most vulnerable students during this time. We recommend thinking about it in three phases, detailed below: The Off-Ramp, The Summer, and the On-Ramp.

The Off-Ramp:
Now – late June (3 weeks after school is out)

  • The school should determine which students at the school are the most vulnerable, focusing on the broadest topic areas of math, literacy, writing, and social-emotional need. To flag these students effectively, leaders need to understand the academic picture for every single student in the school. If a teacher (or set of teachers) doesn’t have enough knowledge regarding how someone is doing, then that is the first sign that the student may be slipping through the cracks and requires outreach and an individualized plan for the summer. In a face to face environment, there are many children who receive extra mentoring or coaching (either before school or during lunch for example), which may not be happening at all during remote instruction, at least not in a systematic fashion. In addition, students who have had spotty attendance in remote learning classes, have not been turning in assignments, and who have had little participation or connection with the school are all higher-risk and are of prime importance for the school to support.
  • Narrow the focus, through planning with teachers, on the highest priority skills students need to learn to be successful in the fall. Develop learning plans that prioritize students building these “micro-skills”. This step is not a “dumbing down of the curriculum.” It is a pointed opportunity to recognize that there are certain key skills students need to thrive. Student Achievement Partners “focus by grade level” documents provide one helpful articulation of where teachers should spend the most of their time based on student age.
  • Develop individualized plans (or by small group) for supporting these students, including, if possible, accessing funding and resources to provide them with:
    • Virtual “intensive” summer camps in math or literacy, either via a third party or organized by the school.
    • Virtual 1-1 tutoring, which could include college students (do you have an alumni base that might be helpful?) hired for the summer, peer to peer supports, or teachers who want to work extra hours over the summer. Research on the effectiveness of tutors has shown that college aged students and paid volunteers produced strong results.
    • Access to technology such as ipads, laptops, etc. as well as apps that can foster their learning independently. Wide Open School is one resource that provides helpful advice both on accessibility and educational applications for children during school closures and in the summer.
    • Physical resources (e.g. a take home kit) that can bolster their learning including grade-level appropriate texts, manipulatives for math problems, and projects they can work on that integrate different disciplines.
    • Skill-building for parents on the micro-skills their children should attain over the summer and how they can bolster their learning.

The Summer

  • Provide periodic — weekly, every other week — engagements with students (e.g. tutoring, summer camp sessions).
  • Check in with students on their progress and celebrate milestones they are meeting on building their micro-skills.
  • As reopening plans solidify, discussions on remediation for students and how that will look and feel when schools reopen in the fall should be at the top of the list. These conversations are not about tracking students, but about ensuring children get enough support during the school year to thrive alongside their peers. This could include additional teachers in school buildings to push-in or pull out students (depending on feasibility due to social distancing guidelines) and provide real-time scaffolding, as well as after-school individualized tutoring (either virtual or in-person).

The On-Ramp:
Start of the 20/21 School Year

  • Ensure there is clear general communication about what learners and families can expect in terms of additional supports during the school year.
  • Work with teachers to assess learning gaps due to COVID-19 in an organized and coherent fashion across the entire student body, with a specific focus on at-risk students.
  • Work with learners on individual goal-setting that ensures they are catching up but also progressing on new content.
  • Set up formal check-points with students to determine their progress throughout the school year.