The pandemic exacerbated the need for reliable broadband internet access everywhere, especially in New Mexico, which has struggled for decades to lay down the infrastructure necessary. (Photo by Leonardo Fernandez Viloria / Getty Images)
In its endorsement of the Republican candidate for New Mexico governor, the state’s largest newspaper wrote that “learning loss” was an inevitable outcome as “prolonged remote learning made a bad situation worse.”
At a news conference in Albuquerque in September, Mark Ronchetti set the tone when he accused Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of failing public school students “consistently.”
“Where was the plan to catch them up?” Ronchetti asked.
If elected, Mark Ronchetti said his education plan would send $1,500 each year to every student to receive outside tutoring for three years.
Later that month, the Republican Governors Association blamed learning loss on Lujan Grisham’s “COVID lockdowns.”
The political rhetoric and uncritical coverage accelerated in late October, when the 2022 “Nation’s Report Card” was published by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and ranked New Mexico last in reading in math among the states.
Ronchetti cited the mathematics scores in his final campaign ad broadcast on Tuesday. Proponents of learning loss argue that closing schools and moving to remote learning in 2020 when there was no vaccine for COVID-19 was a mistake.
But interviews with education and child health experts show that blaming learning loss on closing schools ignores all of the evidence that schools are significant sites of COVID transmission, and accepts the system of standardized tests and rigid grade levels that do not account for the material realities faced by New Mexican students, nor the advice of teachers.
We know that the things that impact children's ability to learn are really simple things like feeling safe at home, things like having enough food to eat, stability in our life, and parents and caregivers who are able to be involved in their learning. So the pandemic impact at every level of each of those things.
– Dr. Theresa Chapple
The goal of those who blame learning loss on virtual school is to never have virtual school again, said Dr. Theresa Chapple, a maternal and child health epidemiologist from the Chicago area.
In her 20-year career, COVID is the fourth pandemic she has experienced, and the most drastic one.
“The economic impacts of having children at home were huge,” she said. “I think that’s what the country is trying to make sure never happens again, so that this wouldn’t have a total grip on our economy again.”
This first camp mostly consists of right wing folks who say schools need to be open because we need to “return to normal,” said Chris Buttimer, a teaching fellowship specialist at Boston Public Schools.
But there is a second camp of center and center-left people, mostly white, who argue that kids don’t learn well in remote learning sessions and that the equitable response would have been to keep schools open at any cost, Buttimer said.
But both of these camps ignore one of the most important pieces missing from almost all discussion of learning loss in the United States: the fact that hundreds of thousands of children have lost a parent or primary caregiver to COVID.
New Mexicans experience ultimate loss
A study published in March found that New Mexico had the third highest rate of caregiver loss to COVID in the entire country, and that Native children here lost caregivers to COVID at a rate 10 times higher than white children.
When Chapple lost her father at age nine, she did “absolutely no schoolwork” that school year.
“I sat in a daze,” she said.
Children are often seen as resilient and overlooked in the grieving process, she said.
Children’s ability to learn is impacted by really simple things like feeling safe at home, having enough food to eat, stability, and parents and caregivers who are involved in their learning, Chapple said. The pandemic affects each of those.
“It is really interesting that we look at like the most proximate cause—the fact that kids were in virtual school or hybrid school, or whatever type of schooling they were in for that year, and blame it on that—and not really look at how the pandemic impacted all those other areas that influence a child’s ability to learn,” she said.
Bereavement is an incredible predictor for student learning and student test-taking outcomes, said Dr. Margaret Thornton, visiting assistant professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia who studies educational leadership and policy.
“Losing a loved one is horrific but losing the person who takes care of you is extreme trauma and we haven’t looked enough on the effect that is having on kids and their learning, and other important social outcomes,” she said.
The same effects can be seen in children who did not lose a parent to COVID but who had a parent who was hospitalized by it, Chapple said.
Most public schools in the United States have wildly overworked guidance counselors who are not specifically trained in grief counseling, Thornton said.
“Increasing the number of grief counselors, people who can work with kids one-on-one and in small groups to address their needs, could be really helpful,” she said.
Dissecting ‘learning loss’
Thornton said learning loss is not a particularly helpful or accurate term in the first place.
“The word ‘loss’ implies something that you had and then now you don’t,” she said. “That’s not what we’re seeing; That’s not what we’re looking at.”
What those test scores actually show, she said, is when comparing 2022 eighth graders to 2019 eighth graders, we can see that students did learn things, but they didn’t learn as much as they would have learned if we hadn’t had a pandemic.
“We need, I think, more of these apples-to-apples comparisons of how to understand how the pandemic affected kids, rather than comparing kids today to pre-pandemic children,” Thornton said.
She points to analysis suggesting that remote schooling itself did not have as much of an impact on student learning as initially thought.
Inequalities made worse
Also lost in the learning loss debate are all the other material conditions New Mexican students already faced before the pandemic and which have only gotten worse since.
That includes unequal access to broadband internet which left some districts unprepared for remote learning, the majority of New Mexican students not receiving a quality or culturally competent education as required by the state constitution, some of the country’s highest rates of food insecurity, school buildings not prepared to handle airborne viruses, the threat of eviction, and more than 1,000 licensed educator positions unfilled throughout the state.
“Kids who are experiencing all of these inequalities before the pandemic, that just become exacerbated by our collective refusal to deal with the root problem: clean air for us to breathe when we’re indoors,” Thornton said.
When Buttimer was a postdoctoral research associate at MIT, he and his co-authors conducted a qualitative study of learning loss through interviews with teachers from across the country who routinely rejected the learning loss narrative as a useful way of understanding the experience of students and teachers during the pandemic.
The researchers found students have successfully engaged in many standards-aligned topics, and some students actually thrived in virtual environments.
Teachers also argued that students made substantial, important learning gains in domains that are not typically evaluated by school systems like their ability to use technology, their ability to self-manage, and learning about racial justice movements in the United States.
“Learning loss is a calculation masquerading as a concept—a rather shallow, naïve, ridiculous concept,” mathematician John Ewing wrote in December 2020.
Buttimer agrees, and said people promoting the learning loss narrative assume that if a child is in a physical classroom and a physical school, that is where learning is happening.
“This idea that school is a place is an unqualified good, where learning happens, and where socio-emotional needs are met, I think it is a huge question mark,” he said.
He said he thinks in a couple of years, after districts have spent their pandemic relief funding without clear increases in test scores, that people on the right will say “spending more money on schools doesn’t work.”
“That’s my prediction,” he said, “As always, I hope I’m wrong.”
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