Experts fear that some children could fall nearly a whole year behind because of “COVID slide”—a learning loss related to the lack of school this spring, followed by a summer break marred by pandemic-related library closures and the cancellation of many summer programs.
By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor
Imagine a young student going back to school this fall wearing a backpack filled with weights.
There are old weights in the backpack, because the student has grown up in poverty. And there are new weights straining the backpack, because the student’s mother lost her job during the pandemic, and the student’s uncle died of COVID-19.
And our student must also carry yet another new and particularly hefty weight: She hasn’t attended school or fully participated in education since mid-March, an unprecedented break that experts believe could set her back a year academically.
As the student goes back to school—in whatever form school takes this fall—her backpack is shockingly heavy. And the danger, Scott Hazelrigg thinks, is that the weight will become too great, and the young student will simply take that backpack off.
“The analogy I always used was that if you showed up at school hungry, you don’t care about your test grade because you are hungry,” says Hazelrigg, the president of NorthStar Foundation, a nonprofit focused on North Omaha boys. “Well, now, if I’m that same kid, I’m worried about 10 other things that outweigh worrying about my geometry grade.”
Educators and experts have long understood the existence of “the summer slide,” when students from Kindergarten through high school lose a portion of what they learned during summer vacation.
Now they are increasingly worried about the far bigger “COVID slide”—a learning loss related to the lack of school this spring, followed by a summer break marred by pandemic-related library closures and the cancellation of many summer programs.
Initial research from the NWEA, a well-respected national educational assessment organization, suggests that the average third-grader will lose a significant chunk of what they gained in reading and even more of what they learned in math because of COVID slide.
If that third-grader returns to full-time school on Sept. 1, he will be reading at roughly the same level he was around last Christmas—and doing math at the same level as he would have in the fall of 2019.
Greg Welch, the Buffett Early Childhood Institute’s associate director of research and evaluation, says that projected learning loss will likely happen for Omaha and Nebraska students, though definitive research of COVID slide hasn’t yet been completed at the local level since students weren’t in school to be assessed in the spring.
“I feel pretty confident that (the NWEA results) are going to play out,” he says. “I hate to say that, because it means it’s going to look so bad in the fall.”
How bad? The NWEA says that, in some cases, it will look and feel like an entire school year has simply been erased.
“In some grades,” the NWEA says, students will be “nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions.”
This predicted COVID slide could have far-reaching implications for students, families, school districts, and the future of the country, local experts and educators say.
It will harm nearly every child, but like so much else related to the pandemic, it will disproportionately affect students of color and students of lower income, they say.
The slide is a factor in the nearly impossible decision-making process about when, and how, to safely send students back to in-person school in 2020.
And the existence of the COVID slide means that it’s on all of us to try to make sure that the slide does not turn into a plunge.
“The school district cannot do this all. The family cannot do it all. The community can’t do it. More than ever, right now, we have to work together,” says Kanyon Chism, a longtime Omaha Public Schools administrator and the Buffett Institute’s new associate director of program development.
Parents can play a big role in minimizing the COVID slide, a role that need not involve becoming a Marine drill sergeant or a calculus teacher.
Help your child build a simple routine, getting up at a certain time, eating breakfast at a certain time, chores at a certain time. That routine will help children immensely when they do go back to school.
In that routine, build one or several short blocks of time where the child is reading. Chism recommends a 20-minute block in the midmorning, and then maybe another reading block or a word game in the afternoon. When the child is watching TV, turn on closed captioning so they are reading even then.
“I don’t think families always realize just how much staying engaged with literacy and reading 30 minutes a day helps,” Chism says. “It can help your child far more than you might realize.”
There are also relatively simple ways to help your child do math, solve problems, and think critically.
One can be found in the kitchen: Have your child measure ingredients and follow along on recipes as you cook a meal.
Another can be found in the living room.
Melissa Wolken, a Buffett Institute educational facilitator who works closely with Gomez Heritage Elementary, is building a lot of forts with her kids with summer. How high can we build the fort? What materials can we use to help it stand up? Should we use sheets, chairs, pillows?
Fort building encourages problem solving as well as planning and persistence. It also encourages flexible thinking, and impulse control. “There’s a lot to be said for simple things this summer,” Wolken says.
The wider community also has a role to play, especially as it relates to children of lower income.
Hazelrigg’s NorthStar Foundation is a shining example of what can be done even in the middle of a pandemic. Hazelrigg himself has been visiting many of NorthStar’s older pupils in their front yards, sitting on lawn chairs and having socially distanced conversations about how things are going.
This summer, NorthStar revamped its normal schedule, shrinking the number of participants, requiring masks and temperature checks and keeping students in the same classrooms.
In mid-July, the second week of the summer program for the third- to eighth-graders, Hazelrigg noticed that the number of behavioral issues had gone down when compared to a normal summer. He suspects the number of smiles behind those masks are way up.
“So many kids have been floating, isolated,” he says. “They are eating up structure. And they are so glad to be somewhere with others. They are truly excited to be here.”
But this isn’t a storybook movie happy ending, Hazelrigg thinks. Every expert I talked to for this story pointed out that most children will return to in-person school with some sort of trauma from the COVID pandemic period, with many also affected by the George Floyd killing and resulting local and national protests.
The role of school districts, in conjunction with families and communities, to meet children where they are on a social-emotional level and help them, while also trying to reverse the COVID slide, is a gargantuan task that will take a Herculean effort.
Every expert I spoke to said that we won’t know much about the amount of long-range harm for months or even years. Despite children’s natural resilience, this much is clear: If left unaddressed, the COVID slide could cause lasting problems.
“Does it become a risk where we have a generation of kids who have missed critical benchmarks of growth?” Hazelrigg asks. “What happens when we expect them to transition to college or the workforce?”
“That’s a long-term question, yet to be answered. What’s the impact?”
Watch an Early Years Matter Conversation with Scott Hazelrigg on this topic.
Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is an award-winning journalist tasked with telling the stories of the Institute's work and early childhood care and education in Nebraska and beyond.
His columns can be read at https://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu/news-and-events/early-years-matter. Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Matthew at firstname.lastname@example.org.