Addressing Pandemic Learning Loss

In our conversations with teachers and administrators across the country, one of the themes that has emerged is learning loss. With school closures, remote learning, and waves of  quarantines, learning has not looked “normal” since March 2020. Many students are behind where they would have been pre-pandemic, both in terms of academics and social-emotional skills. 

We spoke to a number of teachers and administrators to learn more about what types of learning loss they are seeing and how they are addressing the issue this year, both at the classroom and school levels. Many shared that rather than quickly reviewing and moving forward in this year’s curriculum as they were used to, teachers have found it necessary to address a wider range of student skill levels, including teaching material that otherwise would have been covered in a previous grade. Some spoke to missing or delayed social skills, especially in the younger grades. One administrator explained that, due to the lack of time, a lot of teaching last year ended up as whole class instruction instead of more differentiated learning and, as a result, educators didn’t see students progress along a continuum as much as they were used to. All agreed that remote learning, while necessary, was not ideal, and that students and teachers missed out on the richness of learning that comes from in-person, group interactions. 

A number of specific examples made an impression:

  • A second-grade teacher pointed out that the last time her students had a normal school year was when they were in Nursery School. While reading skills seem not to have been impacted negatively overall, the ability to function socially in a classroom has. Many students are struggling to listen, to work with partners, and to sit still for longer periods of time…in other words, they are struggling with basic classroom skills. A grade school administrator similarly shared, “A lot of teaching and learning that we did was very different and we see a loss in those areas, especially in the ability to sit in a group and talk to each other. That is something so simple and we take it for granted, but now we need to re-teach those skills.”
  • An administrator shared that she saw the biggest deficits in Judaic studies, particularly around tefilla and learning about chagim. When it comes to tefilla, students weren’t allowed to sing last year due to COVID measures, and shortened learning time (due to staggered arrival and dismissal and the frequent washing of hands) meant that there wasn’t enough time for kids to both say the words and also learn about what they are saying and what the prayers mean. This administrator is seeing that students don’t know how to be in a minyan together anymore and those in younger grades didn’t learn how to be a shaliach tzibur. As for learning about chagim, students missed opportunities to have immersive, hands-on experiences around Jewish holidays at school; for some – particularly students whose families don’t celebrate at home – those were the only opportunities to celebrate and those children missed a year’s worth of chagim completely.
  • All of those we spoke with shared the feeling that students with learning challenges struggled most, as they lost the extra support and individualized attention of a resource room with remote learning and pandemic closures. According to one administrator, “All of the Support Services were on Zoom, and they were totally ineffective, so all of those kids struggled a lot and didn’t truly get the learning support they needed. And we can see the implications of that now.” The Learning Center director at a high school noted that not only was remote learning difficult, even when learning was in-person, masking and social distancing made bonding harder, and bonding is especially important in a resource room. 

So, how are schools addressing the different types of learning loss they are seeing this year? Some of the strategies include: 

  • Focusing on assessment. There is an increased focus on and commitment to ongoing assessment in order to collect data, track individual and class progress, and make sure students get what they need. One teacher told us that at her school, “We are tracking the kids much better. Teachers also are being asked to be more accountable for advancement and for early and frequent communication with parents.” 
  • Setting realistic expectations. As one administrator shared, “There’s a little more emphasis on a slower start and a slower go.” Teachers are prepared to assess the level of their class and may need to readjust where they are starting from. They also may need to go back and start behind where they usually would. The second grade teacher who saw significant loss of classroom skills intentionally spends time every day working on social skills, such as “how to listen, how to make eye contact, partner sharing, practicing listening skills, how to disagree with someone else, how to be ok being wrong,” with the teacher modeling appropriate behavior for her students.
  • Training staff on how to spot issues.  A lower school administrator shared that she has been training resource staff on how to identify learning loss issues, so that no one falls through cracks, as well as on how to set goals with students and reach them. One strategy she employed was sitting down with her team and going through every student, sorting them into tiers: those who are doing ok, those to watch with some concerns, and those already receiving intervention/need intervention. 
  • Bringing on specialized staff. A number of schools brought in new staff to help with curriculum or with mental health support. One elementary school hired a curriculum coordinator for the first time, and that person is helping teachers with pacing, resources, and materials, which is allowing the administration to hold teachers and resource teachers accountable for meeting goals. A high school brought in two “health and wellness coordinators” during 2020-2021; they spend time in student spaces and are available for informal interaction, with the goal of hopefully catching issues that are not yet acute but are brewing. Less formal or more “natural” than the school psychologists, they have “quickly become an important piece of the puzzle.” 

In one elementary school administrator’s opinion, she estimates that all of her students are “about half a year off in both soft skills and hard skills” and she wonders what the long-term impact will be. She believes that students will eventually catch up, but that what an eighth grader looks like now won’t be the same as what an eighth grader looked like three years ago in terms of their overall body of knowledge and skills. 

At the end of the day, the prevailing approach to tackling learning loss seems to be that teachers need to teach to the students who are actually in front of them, rather than to a hypothetical child who “should be” at a certain level based on past realities. In addition, social skills need to be intentionally taught or re-taught, especially in the younger grades. 

Thank you to the teachers and administrators who shared their experiences with us, including Shira Jacobson, Jewish Studies Teacher, Curriculum and Program Coordinator, Educational Leadership Team, Schechter Manhattan; Rena Lebovitz, Assistant Principal of Grades K-3 and Resource Department Co-Support, Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov Elementary School; Josh Sadres, Director of Learning Center, SAR High School; and Adele Tabush, Jewish Studies Teacher, Yeshiva of Flatbush Elementary School.