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Study Shows Learning Loss From School Closures Could Be 'Significant'

In this April 9, 2020, file photo, Sunnyside Elementary School fourth-grader Miriam Amacker does school work in her room at her family's home in San Francisco.
(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

In this April 9, 2020, file photo, Sunnyside Elementary School fourth-grader Miriam Amacker does school work in her room at her family's home in San Francisco.

For a month, 320,000 public school kids in Southern Nevada, and thousands more in private and charter schools, have been distance learning. Teachers are trying to teach them with online courses. 

Now a new study says the learning loss due to COVID-19-related closures could be significant, especially in math

The  research was done by NWEA, a non-profit that works with Clark County schools to measure student performance and tailor instruction.

Beth Tarasawa is the executive vice-president of research at NWEA. She said her team looked at the phenomenon known as summer slide, which is the amount of learning loss that kids experience during the summer, then backed the modeling for that to March, when most schools closed.

“Our preliminary estimates suggest that in math, this could be particularly devastating, where we could see kids returning in the fall with about 50 percent of the typical learning gains and in some grades almost a full year behind,” she said.

Reading could be a little better. The research predicted students would lose about 70 percent of typical learning gains in reading.

Tarasawa said kids will come back "swiss cheesier" but there is no telling how big those holes will be, how different they will be and what teachers will need to fill those information gaps.


“Does that mean we retain a whole generation back a year? I think that is probably unrealistic but it’s probably unrealistic to expect everyone to fill those swiss cheese holes instantly or within a month’s time,” she said.

As an example, students who were displaced during Hurricane Katrina took years to regain the knowledge lost during those months. Tarasawa said schools need to think about the long-term support a majority of students are going need when they return.

Chris Minnich is the CEO of NWEA. Based on the research, NWEA has some recommendations for schools. The number one recommendation is time with teachers.

“The key to working with students is time in front of teachers, that instruction," he said, "And what’s happening in this period of time is many students aren't receiving consistent instruction.”

Minnich said teachers are trying and doing their best to connect with their students. Many students face obstacles like a lack of internet or a device to connect to the internet.

He said teachers may need to look back to the previous grade level and spend more time on those skills before moving on.

“We believe teachers are the antidote to this. If we can get teachers in front of kids for a focused period of time then teachers can help us solve this problem across the country.”

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara said the information from NWEA is great information to help his organization address the problem.

“It’s is concerning. We know of the summer slide. That’s what we expected and we started thinking about it," he said, "It just gave me some really good data points for us to push the organization.”

Jara said the information will help teachers and staff be ready for when students return to class. His biggest concern is the students who were already struggling before the pandemic. 

“What really for me worries me is my kids that haven’t had access to technology because of inequities that we have in public education, especially here in Clark County,” he said.

Those students might have an even steeper slide.

Tarasawa agreed that the outbreak will just make inequalities in place before even worse.

“Districts across the country are really doing some heroic efforts to get meals and devices in the hands of kids, but we also know, for those most historically marginalized this could be potentially more devastating,” she said.

Currently, CCSD has not been able to contact about 100,000 students. Jara said social workers and other employees of the district are going out door to door trying to make contact with the students to make sure they are okay and giving Chromebooks to those who need them.

The superintendent said the district's job right now is to focus on the health and safety of its students and families.

“We made the early decision to really make this time for our kids to be about enrichment. Do the best we can. I don’t want to be teaching the new standards that they were supposed to learn this fourth marking period because that’s just going to expand the inequities,” he said.

However, the district will be looking ahead at how to address the gaps created by the closures.

“We’re putting plans in place so that when the kids come back we’re going then to try to really minimize the steep COVID slide that our kids are expected to see,” he said.

But he also knows it will be a "multi-year" effort.


Beth Tarasawa, Executive Vice-President of Research, NWEA;  Chris Minnich, CEO, NWEA;  Jesus  Jara, Superintendent, Clark County School District

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.