Reopening Schools Will Mitigate Skyrocketing Learning Loss and Help Jumpstart the Economy

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced last month schools should reopen as soon as possible, as long as social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines can be enforced to ensure a safe in-person learning environment. Maintaining an all-virtual learning environment has been an untenable situation for working parents, educators, and students alike, and the unprecedented levels of learning loss it has caused will likely have profound, long-term impacts on our future workforce and economic recovery. It's time we allow children back in the classroom.

At its peak, the closure of 124,000 U.S. public and private schools across all 50 states affected at least 55.1 million students.

As of this week, only four states—Texas, Iowa, Arkansas, and Florida—have ordered that in-person instruction must be available to all students, either full- or part-time. Other states either have no order in effect, meaning districts decide whether schools reopen, have partial closures in effect, or have full closures in effect. With this green light from the CDC, the remaining states should work to swiftly implement plans to safely reopen schools, especially for the most vulnerable students who are suffering tremendous levels of learning loss and struggling to access other basic needs  like nutritious meals and medical care.

Virtual learning cannot simply replace in-person learning.  For example, during COVID-19, failing grades have nearly doubled in Fairfax County’s middle and high school classes. When learning from home, children—particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds—may lack parental academic supervision, a conducive learning environment, or access to high-quality remote learning. Combine these circumstances with the skyrocketing rate of student absences and the outlook becomes even more bleak.

We’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, low-income students, students of color, and students with special education needs have been disproportionately affected, struggling with virtual and hybrid schooling—or in far too many cases—no schooling at all for long stretches. States and school districts have made significant efforts to address gaps in access, yet inequalities persist and, in most cases, are widening. For example, roughly one-third of Black, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native families do not have access to high-speed internet compared to 21 percent of their white peers. Reopening schools will help level the playing field, ensuring all students have the opportunity and support to get back on track and recover what has been lost.  

Currently, however, school reopenings have been all but equitable. While it is estimated that almost 40 percent of all students are now in either an in-person or hybrid learning environment, only 30 percent of Black students and 27 percent of Hispanic students have been able to transition out of an entirely remote learning environment. By following the CDC guidance to prevent the spread of the virus in schools, it will be possible to offer all students the possibility of returning to school safely and start to mitigate any long-term impacts on student achievement.

The lack of quality virtual instruction or no instruction altogether is translating into a deepening negative impact on students. A McKinsey analysis of assessment data revealed that white students may have lost one to three months of learning loss in mathematics, while students of color may have lost three to five months of learning. They concluded that these numbers effectively suggest that some students may have not learned any new material since the beginning of the pandemic or even fallen behind. One study from Bellwether Education Partners found that approximately three million of the most educationally marginalized students in the country may not have received any formal education since last March. If we don't act quickly to address learning loss by reopening schools, these inequalities will widen the already stark achievement gaps, which would jeopardize our long-term economic recovery.

Reopening schools for in-person learning is an important first step toward getting students back on track, especially to support the most vulnerable among them. Today's K-12 learners are the workforce of the future, and the workforce businesses will depend on. Therefore, what we do today to ensure they are equipped with the skills they need will have a direct impact on their success as working professionals, ensuring American businesses continue to compete and lead in the global economy.