Research & Resources
Coronavirus School Closures and Learning Loss: Challenges and Promising Practices
Published April 24, 2020
by J. Howard Johnston, PhD
School closures can take a significant toll on student learning and achievement. The most common reasons for unanticipated school closings are weather-related, although disease outbreaks, such as influenza, can lead to extended closings to prevent spread or because of high absence rates among students and teachers.
Research on learning loss during these events and extended summer vacations indicates that students can lose knowledge and skills they have already acquired due to the missed time in school. These effects are more pronounced among economically disadvantaged children because the learning resources provided by the school are not as easily replaced with enrichment activities or other learning assets as they might be accessible for more affluent families.
There are programs and practices that can be utilized by schools and caregivers during extended school closures that mitigate this learning loss and may, in fact, boost achievement. Many of these resources are free and available online.
School Closures in a Public Health Emergency
In an effort to contain the coronavirus (COVID-19), Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ordered all schools in the state to close at least through April, canceled state-wide testing, directed school districts to prepare for an extended school year, and gave parents the option of holding their children back for a grade if they don’t feel they are getting enough of an educational opportunity in the current year.
It is estimated that as many as 60 million children in the U.S. will feel the effects of virus-related school closures as a large majority of states have closed schools, often for many weeks and some for the remainder of the school year. Clearly, this is no ordinary closing. Even hurricanes and blizzards end, and recovery efforts include opening schools as a high priority. The uncertainty surrounding this public health emergency is both unprecedented and unsettling.
A Common Practice
According to Wong and her colleagues , children play a large role in transmitting the influenza virus within the socially dense school environment and in introducing illnesses into their households. As a result, closing schools before influenza transmission becomes widespread in schools and surrounding communities is a widely accepted public health practice for slowing the spread of a pandemic. Often, school closures may be implemented reactively due to high levels of student and staff absenteeism.
While school closures are not uncommon, the large majority are for weather-related incidents, not disease prevention. According to a Center for Disease Control (CDC) sponsored project , during a two-year study period, 20,723 unscheduled school closures (USCs) lasting at least one day affected 27,066,426 students.
“Common causes of closure included weather (79%), natural disasters (14%), and problems with school buildings or utilities (4%),” the authors state. “Only 771 (4%) of USCs lasted four or more school days. Illness was the cause of 212 (1%) USCs; of these, 126 (59%) were related to respiratory illnesses and showed seasonal variation with peaks in February 2012 and January 2013.”
The Consequences of Unanticipated School Closures
Extended school closures have a documented effect on student learning, resulting not just in lack of progress, but actual loss of mastery and knowledge. Although the Coronavirus pandemic is unique and unprecedented in contemporary life, evidence for the potential effects of extended school closings may be extrapolated from research on learning loss that occurs during both disease-related events and other unanticipated school closings in American communities.
Studies of unscheduled closures have produced strong circumstantial evidence for their effects on family and community life as well as school achievement, although, because they are “unanticipated,” virtually all of these studies occur after the fact of the closing itself. However, the consistency among these studies demonstrates the unintended consequences of school closure events, such as difficulties for parents in arranging childcare and supervision, missed pay at work, diminished nutrition in a child’s meals, and lower student performance on exams. These consequences have particularly harsh effects on low-income families and their children [2, 5, 6, 7, 8].
Even weather-related closings have the potential to affect student learning. A preliminary study of unscheduled closings in Maryland schools between 1994 and 2005 [6,7] provides provisional evidence that losing school days to unscheduled closures has negative effects on performance on state assessments, and that these school closures have larger effects on performance for students in lower grades.
Researchers estimated that the pass rate for third grade math and reading assessments fall by more than a half percent for each school day lost to an unscheduled closure. This means that in years with a high level of unscheduled closures (for example, 10 days in winter seasons with a heavy amount of snow), more than 5 percent fewer students will pass 3rd- grade reading and math tests than in winters with no unscheduled closures. In years with an average number of unscheduled closures, three percent fewer third graders will pass these assessments.
Combining the researchers’ estimates with the pattern of unscheduled closures over three years, the authors conclude that “more than half of the schools failing to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) in third-grade math or reading…would have met AYP if the schools had been open on all scheduled days.”
More extensive research attention has been devoted to the summer learning loss or the “summer slide” that occurs during the long summer vacations in most American schools. Although it is not an unanticipated event, it can provide additional evidence for the consequences of a lengthy school closures.
The Summer Slide
Although the word “vacation” suggests relaxation and enjoyment, the long summer break common in U.S. schools is anything but relaxing for a large number of families. For many low-income families, it means a struggle to find food for their children and a safe place for them to spend the day. Even among more affluent families or those in which both parents work all day, parents are faced with a challenge of finding a place to leave their kids during the workday.
While high-income families may more easily afford to put their children in a variety of summer programs, camps or activities, low-income children are often left without meaningful, supervised activity during the summer. Because of this, many children are left in the care of only slightly older siblings, with little adult supervision.
Thus, the summer learning loss is one of the most significant causes of the achievement gap between high-income and low-income children in the United States . Also known as the “summer opportunity gap,” children from high-income families can often use the summer break to get ahead while those from lower income families fall further behind.
- "On average, students’ achievement scores declined over summer vacation by one month’s worth of school-year learning
- "Declines were sharper for math than for reading
- "The extent of loss was larger at higher grade levels"
Importantly, they also concluded that “income-based reading gaps grew over the summer, given that middle class students tended to show improvement in reading skills while lower-income students tended to experience loss.” The results of subsequent, more focused studies are slightly more mixed, but “it seems that summer loss and summer gap-growth occur, though not universally across geography, grade level, or subject.”
Much of this loss may be explained by what some researchers have called the faucet theory . According to this theory, the “faucet” is on during the school year, allowing all children to have access to learning opportunities. But during the summer break, the flow of resources slows for students from disadvantaged backgrounds but not for children from more advantaged families. Higher income children have access to more resources that facilitate learning—such as enrichment activities, technology and parent education .
The challenge in the current pandemic, though, is that many of the compensatory resources that are applied to the summer learning loss, such as summer school or community-based programs, are no longer available because of “shelter in place” orders or public health recommendations for social distancing. Gathering kids together for the purpose of educational enrichment is not possible, so much of the responsibility to sustain learning during the COVID-19 crisis falls heavily on the family.
Even with school districts’ efforts to move instruction to a distance learning platform and equip families that do not have appropriate technology with computers and internet access, the resource gap between families with the training and experience needed to help manage the technology and those who lack that experience is formidable.
There is some good news for families. Surprisingly, Brookings reports that home-based programs to help prevent summer learning loss are just about as effective as formal classroom programs . While there are some things that schools are best-equipped to provide, such as delivering direct instruction via technology and giving access to materials a student may not have at home, much of the effectiveness of these programs depends on the learning environment created at home.
To be sure, there are other things schools and teachers can do to promote learning during a school closure . Among them are sending messages to students asking intriguing questions, linking them to interesting materials, or simply providing encouragement and advice. Providing helpful suggestions to parents and caregivers is also important, not only because most parents don’t have professional education backgrounds and may be stumped by the current curriculum, but also as a means of communicating support and commitment to the child’s learning.
Also, it is worth taking some advice from practicing teachers about creating an environment that will sustain meaningful learning throughout the current pandemic and will also allow children to progress through the post-pandemic educational program.
Listed below are some resources that reflect teacher insights and good advice, as well as some engaging resources for home learning. While some of these resources are directly supported by research, all of these resources are deeply rooted in professional wisdom and the beneficial learning that comes from long years of experience working with children.
Coronavirus: What Parents Can Do to Help Their Children Learn At Home
This helpful list from Adam Urbanski, head of the Rochester (NY) teachers’ union, provides good advice about creating a home environment conducive to effective learning.
Khan Academy is an educational nonprofit with the mission to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. This superb site offers very high-quality lessons on virtually every topic in any subject.
Schools are Closing for Coronavirus: Now What?
By Marisa Porges, this article helps understand what parents can do to support their children during this disruptive and disturbing time.
School Closing Learning During Coronavirus (COVID-19)
This article, from Great Schools, offers guidance on home-learning and grade-level appropriate resources.
Scholastic Learn at Home: Free Resources for School Closures
Scholastic Learn at Home provides 20 days’ worth of active learning journeys designed to reinforce and sustain educational opportunities for those students who are unable to attend school.
Top 10 Virtual Museum Tours
The worlds’ most popular museums are now just a mouse click away thanks to virtual tours powered by Google Street View technology. Most large museums now have virtual tours, so pick one of your favorites and visit their website to learn more.
- Borman G. D., Benson J., Overman L. T. (2005). Families, schools, and summer learning.
The Elementary School Journal, 106(2), 131–150. http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/499195
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2009). Impact of seasonal influenza-related
school closures on families - Southeastern Kentucky, February 2008. Centers for Disease
Control, Morbidity Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) 58:1405–1409.
- Cooper H., Nye B., Charlton K., Lindsay J., Greathouse S. (1996). The effects of summer
vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review. Review
of Educational Research, 66(3), 227–268. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.3102/00346543066003227
- Entwisle D. R., Alexander K. L., Olson L. S. (2000). Summer learning and home environment.
In Kahlenberg R. D. (Ed.), A notion at risk: Preserving public education as an engine
for social mobility (pp. 9–30). New York, NY: Century Foundation Press
- Johnson A.J., Moore, Z.S., Edelson, P.J., Kinnane, L., Davies, M., et al. (2008).
Household responses to school closure resulting from outbreak of influenza B, North
Carolina. Emerg Infect Disease 14:1024–1030.
- Marcotte, D., and Helmelt, S. W. (July, 2007). Unscheduled School Closings and Student
Performance. Discussion Paper No. 2923. Bonn, Germany: Institute for the Study of
Labor. Retrieved from: http://ftp.iza.org/dp2923.pdf
- Marcotte, D.E., Hemelt, S.W. (2008). Unscheduled school closings and student performance.
- Marcotte, D.E. (2007). Schooling and test scores: A mother-natural experiment. Economics
of Education Review, 26:629–640.
- Quinn, D. M., and Politkoff, M. (September 14, 2017). Summer learning loss: What is
it, and what can we do about it? Evidence Speaks. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.
Retrieved from: https://www.brookings.edu/research/summer-learning-loss-what-is-it-and-what-can-we-do-about-it/
- Wong, K. K., Jianrong Shi, J., Hongjiang, G, Zheteyeva, Y. A., Lane, K., Copeland, D., Hendricks, J., McMurray, L., Sliger, K., Rainey, J., Uzicanin, A. (December 2, 2014). Why is school closed today? Unplanned k-12 school closures in the united states, 2011–2013. Plos One. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0113755
This report was prepared by J. Howard Johnston, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of South Florida and Interim Associate Director for Policy for the David C. Anchin Center in the College of Education.
This article is a service of the Educational Policy Information Center (EPIC), housed at the David C. Anchin Center for the Advancement of Teaching in the University of South Florida College of Education.