Cheryl Oldham Cheryl Oldham
Former Senior Vice President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation
Former Vice President, Education & Workforce Policy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


March 26, 2021


When the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the country, schools began shutting their doors. Despite CDC guidance that schools can reopen safely with the proper precautions, only 37 percent of school districts have returned to full in-person learning, meaning this widespread learning disruption continues to affect the millions of American students who are still learning from home. Unsurprisingly, this has led to skyrocketing student absence rates, an increase in failing grades, and unprecedented learning loss.

Whether driven by attending school from a bedroom or lacking reliable access to WiFi, we know students have faced critical learning loss throughout the pandemic. Just after missing the tail end of the Spring 2020 academic year, students started school in Fall 2020 a full three months behind in math and 1.5 months behind in reading. That divide has only grown as many stayed in digital classrooms through the fall and into Spring 2021. By the end of this school year, the average American student will have lost five to nine months of learning.

But this learning loss hasn't been spread out equally among American students. While white students will likely face a loss of four to six months of learning by the end of this school year, students of color could be up to 12 months behind. School closures have disproportionally affected students in underserved communities, and learning loss is no exception. The students who had the fewest opportunities on the eve of the pandemic are the ones who will be playing catch-up for years after it ends.

The months of learning lost by American students won't just impact them during their K-12 careers. Falling behind will affect their entire lives—and our entire economy. The Urban Institute recently estimated that just three months of learning loss drives U.S. students' future earnings down as much as 3.5 percent and decreases their higher education attainment, whether that be associate's or bachelor's degrees. Education can be the great equalizer, positioning children to pursue fulfilling and financially stable careers as adults. Gaps in education, however, can lay the groundwork for tragic consequences.

That loss in earnings and education is a problem for all of us. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests that students around the world affected by school closures will see lower incomes over their lifetimes, reducing national GDP by an average of 1.5 percent for the rest of the century. That could lead to $10 trillion of labor earnings lost by today's K-12 students—a figure that tops 10 percent of today's global GDP.

The first step to helping students catch up with learning is welcoming them back to their classrooms. Continuing to reopen schools is an imperative for our country's students, parents, and economy. Today's students will soon become tomorrow's workforce, and getting them the support they need in schools is the key to start narrowing the COVID-19 learning gap and continue building a strong, inclusive economy.

About the authors

Cheryl Oldham

Cheryl Oldham

Cheryl A. Oldham was senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and vice president of education and workforce policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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