Photo: Ralph Smith, director, Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

Address the Learning-Loss Crisis

Posted on January 25, 2021 by Ralph Smith

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Herald-Tribune on January 24, 2021.


COVID-19 learning loss is a disaster within a disaster. Like the water damage caused by the powerful hoses deployed to quell a raging fire, learning loss is the unintended but unavoidable consequence of the year-long struggle to curtail the spread of the virus. And now, to prevent further damage, this aspect of containing the pandemic deserves recognition as a full-fledged disaster of its own.

The abrupt closing of schools, early childhood programs, and child care centers to contain COVID-19 undoubtedly saved thousands of lives. This life-saving measure has had an unintended consequence: student learning loss that is unprecedented in scale and potentially catastrophic. As with COVID-19 itself, the harshest effects will fall most heavily on those with preexisting conditions, which in this instance include: lack of internet connectivity; children with special needs or with caretakers who work in the informal economy or in low-paid but "essential" jobs; and families with language and literacy barriers, housing and food insecurity, or any of the many other markers of poverty-related adversity.

What are the stakes? How bad can it get?

The aptly named June 2020 McKinsey & Company report, "COVID-19 and Student Learning in the United States: The Hurt Could Last a Lifetime," estimated that if in-class instruction did not resume until January 2021:

  • All students will lose ground — from 3–4 to 12–14 months.
  • Black and Hispanic students will lose 3–5 months more than white students. Asset-limited students will lose 12+ months.
  • Up to 1.1 million students could drop out of high school for COVID-19-related reasons.
  • These impacts will produce an estimated GDP loss of $173 billion to $271 billion per year.
Left unattended, learning loss of this magnitude — especially in the early grades — could further compromise the prospects for a generation of vulnerable children whose future already is at risk. Slowing, stopping, and reversing the pandemic-precipitated learning loss is an urgent priority that will take years to accomplish.

As a disaster amidst a disaster, recovery from learning loss will continue to compete poorly with the more urgent "rescue and relief" concerns around health and safety that will occupy the current school year and the next as well.

It is important to note that while unprecedented in magnitude, student learning loss is not the sole result of closing schools. The social and emotional consequences of the disruption have been enormous as well. Dr. Pam Cantor and others are correct in urging that whatever the new normal looks like, schools will have to prioritize resilience upon reopening. That resilience priority will require taking the time needed to re-establish old routines such as regular attendance and to develop new ones such as social distancing. Similarly, it will take time as well as care to rebuild the relationships within the schools and with families and communities.

Despite some posturing to the contrary, this is a both/and not an either/or situation. We can do both. When it comes to learning loss, paralysis is not an option. Learning loss recovery cannot follow the normal post-disaster decade long course. The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading has committed to a messaging and mobilization strategy to encourage and support communities here in Florida and across the nation to act with urgency to slow and stop learning loss and jumpstart the recovery planning process. Moreover, it has launched a nationwide Learning Happens Everywhere initiative to bolster learning by transforming formal and informal spaces and places into learning-rich environments.

We're grateful that The Patterson Foundation is a national leader in responding to children's immediate needs during this situation and to longer-term recovery. Undoubtedly, the Foundation's connection to and support of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy has aided its ability to bring this level of understanding and wisdom to its work.

The Patterson Foundation's latest donation of $250,000 is a catalytic contribution that will support the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading's network of communities working to build better futures for some of the nation's most vulnerable children by ensuring all children read on grade-level by the end of third grade.

Since 2013, the Foundation has contributed more than $1.75 million to strengthen the Campaign's efforts to promote early school success in more than 350 communities in 45 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and two provinces in Canada.

Closer to home, The Patterson Foundation works with the Florida Grade-Level Reading Campaign and serves as a lead partner of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, promoting grade-level reading efforts in Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota counties. The Suncoast Campaign has consistently received recognition for its work, including multiple Pacesetter Honors, one of the highest awards presented by the GLR Campaign, and the prestigious All-America City Award.

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