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The Lost Generation? Myths and Facts about COVID "learning loss"

A note - an article (even mine) cannot tell you whether your child needs extra support in learning. Below are my thoughts - a reframing of current conversations - which I hope will reduce "learning loss panic".

Do all children experience "learning loss"? The short answer is no.

However, if you’ve spent any time on social media, you’re forgiven for believing that the pandemic has permanently hobbled our children. This year has been SO HORRIBLE and SO DAMAGING that *at best* our children will be just educated enough to sell matchsticks on the street corner. Our kids:

  • Are Ruined Forever!

  • Are the LOST generation!

  • Will NEVER catch up! (hand to brow, faints slowly to carpet)

These ideas - and their shares on social media - strike fear into the hearts of parents. Clearly pandemic “learning loss” is something which impacts Every. Single. Child.

Right? Well, no.

These dramatic statements, in fact, do not apply to all children. And, these statements do a huge disservice to parents, to children, and to educational equity by oversimplifying the complexity of COVID education.

Let’s dig in with some “Learning Loss” myths

Myth 1 - Every child’s learning has been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Nope! Not every child experiences learning loss – over the summer or during a pandemic.

Myth 2 - Learning Loss occurs in every academic area for every child. Again – no. For students who experience setbacks – they are not necessarily global. Instead, students might need support in one area.

Myth 3 Part 1- Our children will never recover from COVID schooling. Kids are resilient, often more so than adults. That’s why most children adapted to masks so easily, while their parents struggled. They can and will adjust.

Myth 3 Part 2 - Our children will never recover from COVID schooling. Learning is not rigid. In the long term, it doesn’t matter if a child learns something in fall of grade 3 vs. fall of grade 4.

Myth 4 - "Learning Loss" assumes that following the mandated standards, spending time face to face with a teacher, and doing schoolwork is the best and only way students learn. Educators know this is not the case. Rachel Gabriel sums it up nicely, "It is loss of a previously imagined trajectory leading to a previously imagined future."

Seven Questions To Considers

1. Does this information actually apply to my child?

Initial research (and really we are just at the beginning) supports the idea that many students fared fine. Read COVID learning loss articles, and the underlying research, closely. Be a savvy consumer of media. Read the fine print and ask yourself – “does this research actually apply to my child?” Often, the writers and researchers specify students in low-income districts or other specific groups which may or may not describe your child.

2. Does my child have existing needs?

If your child is diagnosed with a specific issue (ADHD, dyslexia, anxiety, preexisting struggles in math etc.), of course, as a parent, you should attend to how your own child has functioned and learned during the pandemic in collaboration with their teacher.

3. What does the teacher say?

Kids who are typically developing are likely to be OK. In fact, for these kids, the break from traditional schooling may have silver linings. If your child’s teacher says that your child is on track, despite the pandemic, chances are good that your child will ok.

4. Was your child Hybrid or Remote?

Anecdotally, district which went hybrid appear to be on track overall. The picture is less clear for district which remained fully remote.

5. Did you have easy access to tech?

Some districts hit the ground running with the remote side of education. Some families had easy access to technology either in the home or quickly provided by the school. In some districts, most families already had WIFI. Other districts did not and it took time to build and distribute this infrastructure.

6. Is your district generally performing well?

In some districts, students were already wildly ahead academically (see this post). In other districts, students were wildly behind. Did your child have a pandemic cushion, or a pandemic mountain to climb?

7. Is your community middle or high-income?

Some districts had (I won’t say ample funding – because that is rarely the case in education) – but let’s say enough funding to roll with constant changes in state policy. Other districts did not. In the United States, our school districts are not funded equitably (see this NPR article for a visual example). Students within a 30-mile radius had vastly different pandemic experiences – and outcomes. Students in more affluent districts appear to have made gains overall – despite the pandemic. Students in districts with fewer resources did not fare as well.

These distinctions matter. They matter A LOT because some of our students have legitimately lost ground through the pandemic. Our ethical obligation to our communities is to make sure that these students have the resources to get back on track. These children are the ones those dramatic headlines are talking about. These children, and their schools, require resources.

Call to Action

If you are a parent who had some of the advantages listed above, chances are good that your child’s learning is in good shape and in good hands. We are facing a pivotal moment in education in which, as a society, we can boost our own children forward and forget about the others, or we can act for both our kids and all kids.

What can you do?

1. Above all, don’t blindly share information on “COVID learning loss” on social media without also sharing nuance, complexity and issues of equity. Let’s work together to lower the pressure on parents and raise awareness around educational inequity.

2. Ask yourself and your peers the questions above. Really think about what your child actually needs and consider opting out of summer tutoring, math classes and science camp. Instead, opt for experiences which will develop your child’s understanding of the world, build compassion, offer them social experiences, and rebuild their sense of normal.

3. Figure out which schools need resources and what initiatives are already underway. Find ways to support them. Nothing available? Email and ask your local schools, food banks, community councils and more - what they need. Coordinate with others to address these needs.

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