If you’ve ever heard of the “COVID slide,” you’ll know it isn’t the latest TikTok dance move – it’s a term used to describe the learning loss that’s happened since the pandemic forced schools around the world to shut their doors to in-person learning or switch to reduced schedules.

Two-thirds of the academic year may have been lost with the change, estimates UNESCO, as 800 million students (more than half of the world’s student population) in 79 countries still face disruption in their academic progress. Even with instruction happening online, returning to in-person or adopting a hybrid model, many schools are still struggling with the question: how do we catch up?

No easy answers here, we know. But if we’re going to make sure students find success in the remainder of this school year – and the school years to come – it’s important to take a closer look at what learning loss really is, how schools can mitigate it, how lesson planning can help students stay on track, and how a strong curriculum mapping process can help turn those losses into learning gains.

The lowdown on learning loss

Broadly speaking, learning loss describes the loss of knowledge and skills that students experience when they’re not in school. It’s the idea that learning decays over time if students don’t engage with it regularly.

Before 2020, you might have heard the term “learning loss” in a different context: summer break, when kids spend eight to 12 weeks away from the classroom. During that time, their academic progress slows (if not stagnates or falls behind altogether).

But COVID halted in-person schooling for much longer. The global average is anywhere from 3.5 to 5.5 months, compounded by on-again-off-again instruction, patchwork methods of hybrid learning and improvised “home learning” in the interim.

The results of that extended break look different depending on which schools, students subjects and communities you measure. Children who are building foundational skills in early grades, for example, fell behind in reading progress during the pandemic, with 48% more first-graders landing below benchmarks for the year.

Meanwhile in mathematics, McKinsey estimates that U.S. students lost an average of five to nine months of learning in mathematics. But among students of colour, that figure increases to between six months to a full year. Remote schooling increases disparity, too, with some students lacking access to homeschooling, additional resources like learning camps and technology. “While all students are suffering, those who came into the pandemic with the fewest academic opportunities are on track to exit with the greatest learning loss,” McKinsey writes.

That said, these academic losses don’t tell the whole story.

Learning loss vs. schooling loss

While these stats showcase a widening gap in learning, some educators argue that we’ve been looking at learning loss with too narrow a lens – one that’s focused on the quantity of learning rather than the quality. That may better be described as schooling loss, or the loss of instruction in the traditional sense of bums-in-seats and adherence to standardized learning outcomes that don’t reflect education as we know it today.  

To get a better sense of what learning loss really means to educators and the children they teach, we need to ask some deeper questions:

  • What, exactly, are students “losing”?
  • Who is losing out?
  • What are students learning during this time?
  • What’s working better now than it was before?

Learning loss vs. learning gain

This brings us to learning gain – the idea that students are successfully gaining knowledge in new ways. “Our students are learning every single day. They are learning deeply, personally, and significantly about many things,” writes one author – learning in family and communities, learning about what it means to be constrained, learning about their relationship with digital resources and even learning about the human condition.

Some parents report that digital learning has given their kids a new interest in school, more confidence to be themselves, in a space that’s more humane and free of micro-aggressions. Many teachers have even noticed improved academic performance in their classes.

Curbing learning loss in your school

Yes, the damage has been done. Short of building a time machine and reversing the chain of events that got us here, we can’t undo the impact that the pandemic has had on students. But we can adjust the way we define student success, the support we provide, and the way we structure learning to mitigate learning losses.

The role of school administrators

What programs can help assess where your students are today and bring them to where they need to be tomorrow? School administrators can help plan and implement learning recovery programs that include a wide range of learning opportunities:

  • Standardized approaches to remote learning
  • Tutoring programs individual or partnered students during or after school hours
  • After-school acceleration academies that reinforce core learning with smaller groups of students
  • Adaptive technology programs that allow students to work at their own pace and move on once they’ve mastered the material
  • Partnering with community organizations for literacy programs that can support teachers’ in-class instruction

Getting these programs in place doesn’t just help close the learning gaps between students and standards today – it gives schools a plan of action the next time a learning disruption of this magnitude happens again, so schools aren’t left scrambling. 

The role of curriculum maps

Curriculum maps are both a diagnostic tool and a treatment for the gaps and gains in student learning over the past year:

  • They tie together the standards your teachers plan to teach on a holistic, cross-grade and cross-subject level, shedding light on where students have fallen short and where they’re coming out ahead during the pandemic.
  • Once you learn about what gaps and gains exist, your school can realign its curriculums to addresses the learning that’s been lost. This includes academic performance on foundational skills and other softer skills like communication and collaboration that students have lost.

The practice of curriculum mapping will help build a more resilient school where students can enjoy more consistency and support through each lesson while helping you and your teachers feel more prepared next time a surprise like this happens. Our articles on Self Assessment: Am I Ready to Refine My Curriculum Mapping Process or How to Create a Curriculum Map [Infographic] to get started with curriculum mapping.

The role of lesson planning

If curriculum maps are the roadmap to learning recovery, then lesson plans are the turn-by-turn directions that’ll get us there. A strong lesson plan can address learning losses and learning gains through:

  • Scaffolding within lessons to bring lagging students up-to-speed (and keep them motivated)
  • Extra focus on reinforcing previous learning to make sure foundational skills stick
  • Building in alternative pathways for students who don’t have reliable access to technology or connectivity
  • Designing learning activities that keep students engaged remotely and fit with their distance learning modalities
  • Double-checking at the individual lesson level whether learning has occurred

Teachers can even engage students in a collaborative lesson planning process, which will help tailor each lesson to the class’s specific needs, in the way that works best for them!

Building back better for student success

There’s no denying it: the COVID slide exists. But that doesn’t mean that learning losses need to widen into achievement losses down the line for the students we teach. With a solid approach to curriculum mapping and lesson planning, you and your teachers can pinpoint where learning happens – and where it doesn’t – and make sure instruction focuses on quality of skills over quantity of standards, today and into the future.

Check out these Chalk resources to continue learning about how you can address learning loss and get ready for the next school year: How to Use COVID-19 Relief Funding for Your School, How to Plan for the Next School Year and New Normal, and How to Use Chalk to Support Educators as Schools Transition to E-Learning.

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