The COVID Slide: Pandemic Learning Loss Widens Disparities in Education

 The COVID Slide: Pandemic Learning Loss Widens Disparities in Education

A little over a year ago, the COVID-19 public health emergency was declared a worldwide pandemic. Shortly thereafter, schools made the switch from face-to-face classes to virtual learning. The shift to a virtual learning environment was initially projected to last a few weeks, then later extended through the end of the academic year. We are now over a year into remote learning and while some students have been able to revert back to in-person education, the majority are still learning remotely. The challenges our education system has faced during this pandemic have caused researchers to re-examine existing inequities through the lens of this pandemic and the outlook in the short-term is grim. 

Summer Learning Slide Meets COVID-19

In recent decades, there has been growing concern over a phenomenon known as the ‘summer slide’. It refers to the idea that over the summer break, students lose some of the knowledge acquired over the course of an academic year. While the summer learning slide affects students of all backgrounds, it is widely accepted that students on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum suffer the most from summer learning loss. A study by Johns Hopkins found that factors in the students’ lives outside of school perpetuated this gap. The COVID learning slide is similar to the summer slide except it is exacerbated by the length of time away from traditional learning. Socioeconomic factors related to the pandemic such as reduction or loss of household income, food insecurity, unreliable internet access, and availability of computers and equipment needed for remote learning also contribute to the COVID learning slide.  

Racial Disparities in STEM Education

Historically, racial minorities such as Black and Latinx students have been underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) courses. According to a 2018 report released by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, underrepresented minority students are less likely to pass basic math and STEM courses such as Algebra than the general student population. That same report also highlights the disparity in STEM education access. Approximately 5,000 high schools with more than 75% Black and Latinx student enrollment offer STEM courses at a lower rate than high schools overall. The widest disparities were found in advanced STEM courses such as Calculus and Physics. This historic underrepresentation of minorities in STEM has intersected with a long-term learning slide in an unprecedented way during this pandemic.

Black and Latino students will disproportionately experience learning loss, compounding the damaging effects of policies that already leave students of color with fewer and lower-quality resources, significantly larger class sizes, less qualified and experienced teachers, and less access to high-quality curricula.

Faith Mitchell, The Urban Institute

A Pew Research Center study estimated that over a quarter of the Hispanic and Black populations in the U.S. live in multigenerational households. Pew also found that, when adjusted for household size, multigenerational households generate less income than traditional households. Lower-income households are also less likely to have reliable high-speed internet service, according to HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research. This places students who are already marginalized at a greater disadvantage during this pandemic. 

While some schools in lower population areas have resumed in-person learning, many students, especially those in urban, high-population areas, are still learning remotely this semester. This can make learning challenging in regard to most school subjects, but the inability to be in a classroom or laboratory for hands-on learning in STEM subjects serves to magnify the existing inequities among underrepresented minority students. 

What Comes Next

Once face-to-face learning resumes, the most significant short-term effect will most likely entail a large amount of review of the previous academic year’s material. While it can take up to six weeks to re-teach material after the typical summer slide, it is yet to be determined how long it will take to close any learning gaps caused by the pandemic. While long-term effects are still unknown, there will likely be a deepening of the racial divide when it comes to participation in STEM education—and later on, STEM degree attainment.

The disparities can be mitigated in several ways including public sector partnerships with non-profit organizations as well as private sector businesses that specialize in STEM fields. Reforms in the funding mechanisms which lead to disproportionate allocation of funds and resources among urban, suburban, and rural school districts can also help mitigate disparities. Unfortunately, these solutions can sometimes take years to implement (if they are even implemented at all). Failure to close or narrow the learning gap that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to dire economic and social outcomes in the years ahead.

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Victoria Morales

Victoria Morales

Victoria is a proud Tejana and education professional currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Public Policy and Political Economy. Her research focuses on higher education policy and disparities in access to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education among underrepresented minority groups. Victoria holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master’s degree from the University of Texas at Dallas. She is also a dog mom to a Maltese named Pippa.

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