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Post Pandemic Back to School and Recovering Lost Learning

Children in poverty are the most vulnerable. What can be done?

Key points

  • The pandemic response has had devastating impacts on children, especially on learning and mental health.
  • Children living in poverty fell even further behind than other groups during the pandemic.
  • Every child's current knowledge and skills must be determined so that educational support is appropriately aligned to these levels.

A new school year is about to begin, but this year is unique. It is perhaps the most unusual return to school in more than a century because the U.S. is finally fully returning to in-person and unmasked education.

Although we can all celebrate this opportunity for our children to again go to school, be with peers, and learn "normally," the residual effects of Covid mitigation create real challenges in making up educational “lost ground” in all too many students starting school in 2022.

A report by UNICEF is brutally honest about what happened to student learning and achievement during Covid isolation.1 The data speak for themselves:

March 2022 marked two years of COVID-19-related disruptions to global education. "Quite simply, we are looking at a nearly insurmountable scale of loss to children’s schooling,” said Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Chief of Education.

While the disruptions to learning must end, just reopening schools is not enough. Students need intensive support to recover lost education. Schools must also go beyond places of learning to rebuild children’s mental and physical health, social development, and nutrition.

Details on the educational losses are even more devastating–and the impact on children living in poverty and in single-parent homes where capacity is stretched further was even more devastating:

In low- and middle-income countries, learning losses to school closures have left up to 70 per cent of 10-year-olds unable to read or understand a simple text, up from 53 percent pre-pandemic.

And of course, these results are also seen in the U.S.:

In the U.S., learning losses have been observed in many states including Texas, California, Colorado, Tennessee, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Maryland. In Texas, for example, two thirds of children in grade three tested below their grade level in math in 2021, compared to half of children in 2019.

It was a national embarrassment that half our children were testing below grade level pre-pandemic, but Covid made things so much worse.

The impacts were not limited to learning. Students’ mental health was also adversely impacted, especially in teens and preteens:

A growing body of evidence shows that COVID-19 has caused high rates of anxiety and depression among children and young people, with some studies finding that girls, adolescents and those living in rural areas are most likely to experience these problems.

Worse, this translated to outcomes such as higher attempted suicide rates among teens in the U.S.2

Setting aside the important question of whether these adverse impacts were justified by reductions in Covid deaths among students, teachers, and school personnel, if any, see, for example, a meta-analysis by Herby et al. (2002) showing “An analysis of each of these three groups support the conclusion that lockdowns have had little to no effect on COVID-19 mortality;”3 the fact is that the lockdowns–for better or worse–were implemented and the results now have to be addressed.

There is no shortage of potential solutions, but it is crucial that all remedial efforts focus on measuring current achievement levels in every student (individually) and teaching on current levels of performance. In my book, The intuitive parent,4 a developmental framework is provided that argues for knowledge-based education rather than age-based education.

In other words, education is most effective when delivered at developmental levels slightly above current knowledge and skill levels. Practically speaking, it makes no sense to teach calculus to someone who is just learning multiplication and division, regardless of their age. Similarly, it is very foolish indeed to assign Moby Dick to someone with a second-grade reading level, regardless of how old they are.

At this time, it is vitally important that a nationwide adjustment in educational practices and content be initiated that directly meets children where they are in terms of current knowledge levels rather than assigning materials based on a child’s age. Teaching materials–and tutoring–must then be aligned with present knowledge and skill levels–and learning needs.

Parents and caregivers should be active participants in this process. Honest conversations must occur about whether–and how far–their child’s learning is behind due to Covid restrictions. More importantly, family members must be offered the opportunity to contribute to their child’s learning and be given specific tutoring materials that are individualized to their child’s current math, reading, and science achievement levels.

It is inarguable that the pandemic and its response have created an educational crisis that will have long-lasting–perhaps permanent–negative effects on learning and achievement. Conducting educational “business as usual” with age level and grade level teaching materials without regard to the current level of function, knowledge, and skills—and meeting each child’s educational needs will truly doom this generation of students to even poorer educational outcomes than pre pandemic students. And this will be even more devastating to children living in poverty as the "learning gap" widens even further.

It is time for back to school–and to ensure that there is a concerted local, state, and national effort for families, teachers, and education administrators to work together to recover the knowledge and skills lost during the pandemic. There is no more time to waste–our children’s (and grandchildren’s) futures are at stake.


[1]…. Accessed on August 11, 2022

[2]Charpignon M, Ontiveros J, Sundaresan S, et al. Evaluation of Suicides Among US Adolescents During the COVID-19 Pandemic. JAMA Pediatr. 2022;176(7):724–726. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.0515

[3]Herby, J., Jonung, L., & Hanke, S. (2022). A literature review and meta-analysis of the effects of lockdowns on COVID-19 mortality. Studies in Applied Economics, (200).

[4]Camarata, S. (2017). The intuitive parent: Why the best thing for your child is you. Penguin.

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