Minnesota’s most vulnerable students may have lost a year of learning during the COVID-19 pandemic

Tonja Henjum and her daughter Taylor struggled during distance learning this spring, and Henjum worries that if Taylor can't receive in-person instruction this fall, she'll fall further behind academically. Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer

Sizi Goyah motivates his Brooklyn Center High School math students by dancing, singing and rapping through algebra and calculus. 

But when Minnesota schools switched to distance learning in March, it was difficult for Goyah, like many educators, to teach new material — or even get his students to log on. 

His class attendance rate — typically at least 95% — dropped to 20%.

He was doing damage control at best, Goyah said, especially since many students were dealing with complex issues at home on top of the pandemic. Now, he’s anxious about what more distance learning could mean for their education.

“Some of my students were at a fourth grade level (in math), and I was trying to teach them in an 11th grade class. Now they’re going to the 12th grade, still at a fourth grade level,” he said. “It’s going to be really hard.”

Brooklyn Center High School teacher Sizi Goyah is concerned that his students might fall behind because of school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Sizi Goyah

Goyah is right to be afraid. Distance learning and the stress of the pandemic have likely had disastrous effects on student learning in the United States, experts say. And the struggles may persist this fall as some Minnesota students will start the year with more remote instruction and limited classroom time under the state’s reopening plan.

By some estimates, the average student may have lost seven months of learning by the end of 2020. Researchers call the phenomenon “learning loss,” and low-income students and students of color are likely to have suffered the most. Achievement and opportunity gaps will deepen, experts say, a pressing concern in Minnesota as the state’s racial disparities in education are already among the nation’s worst.

“There was just not enough support from schools, in general, to provide adequate and robust and rigorous distance learning,” said Josh Crosson, executive director of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit EdAllies. “If we have a hybrid model or a distance learning model going forward, we’re really going to need to address some of those shortcomings.” 

There will be no quick fix to help struggling students, however, researchers say. Without resources and intensive support — a monumental challenge for educators and elected officials  given the uncertainty, tight budgets and competing priorities amid a pandemic — the educational disruptions could have lifelong effects.

Low-income students, students of color experiencing the worst losses

Students will start school this fall with about 66% of their usual progress in learning and 50% of their usual progress in math, according to a report from the nonprofit NWEA and researchers at Brown University and the University of Virginia. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates that between March and the end of the year, the average student will have lost seven months of learning. For low-income students, the loss will be closer to 12 months of learning. For Black and Hispanic students, at least nine months.

In other words: A year wasted. 

These estimates are alarming since just one-third of U.S. students are proficient in reading and fewer than half are proficient in math, said Pam Davis-Kean, a University of Michigan psychology professor.

Math and Science Academy junior Paula Akakpo said she’s worried that she missed important lessons in science and math during distance learning. Photo courtesy of Paula Akakpo

Between school closures in March and summer break, the sheer amount of time away from the classroom would have been enough to cause an academic slide for some students. This interruption was compounded by the stress of the pandemic, social isolation and economic strain, experts say — plus the fact that remote learning simply didn’t work for many students.

Many families suffered with limited internet or computer access, language barriers, accessibility issues for students with disabilities and an overall lack of academic rigor, Crosson said. 

EdAllies analyzed spring distance learning plans from 91 Minnesota districts and charter schools and found that just over a third specified that students would learn new content, and less than a quarter said students would receive any live instruction via video call.

Paula Akakpo, a junior at Woodbury charter school Math and Science Academy, said she got live instruction once or twice a week at most.

“With math or science, I definitely lost something. How can I move on, not fully understanding or fully getting the education from 10th grade?” she said. “And if you can afford a tutor right now, you might not be having these problems that I’m having.”

Student progress ‘blown out of the water’

Extra academic support could be a make-or-break privilege during remote learning.

High-income students may have even gained progress compared to the months before the pandemic, one study found, further widening the achievement and opportunity gaps.

Lack of family effort isn’t to blame for the disparities: Poor and wealthy parents spent equal amounts of time helping kids with schoolwork this spring, according to a Census Bureau survey. Low-income students, however, were less likely to have access to resources like internet, computers, quiet spaces to work or parents available to help with school during the day.

And mounting evidence suggests that students in poorer districts received lower-quality instruction. A national survey found that high-poverty districts relied more on paper packets and expected students to spend less time on schoolwork than wealthier districts.

Distance learning was especially difficult for students with disabilities. Some Minnesota parents say they feel their children essentially stopped receiving an education when school buildings closed.

Prior Lake parent Tonja Henjum said even getting 8-year-old Taylor to log on was a struggle.

Taylor — who has an Individualized Education Plan for extra help with academic and social skills — was distraught by the changes to her routine and upset that she couldn’t see her friends. Video calls with teachers scared her, and she’d refuse to engage or have a meltdown, Henjum said.

Taylor got so behind on schoolwork that new assignments were impossible, Henjum said. As a result, she was marked absent most days and received failing grades.

As a single parent who works full-time, Henjum said she couldn’t help her daughter as much as she needed. Taylor had worked hard to progress toward reading proficiency, and distance learning “totally blew it out of the water,” Henjum said. A summer tutor helped her regain some progress.

Sarah McLaren said distance learning was so distressing for her daughter that the west metro family wondered if it would be better to stop school entirely than continue virtual learning this fall. The fourth grader usually receives extra help with reading and math, and that support didn’t translate well to online teaching, McLaren said. 

Frustrated by the confusing virtual lessons, the 9-year-old would run from the computer or hide under the bed, McLaren said. By June, both mother and daughter were in tears most days.

“The only thing I could see was this train leaving the station with all her classmates on it, and we were not on that train. There was no way we could get on it,” she said. “I had to just accept that she wasn’t going to learn anything new.”

‘The damage is going to be wide, and it’s going to be really deep’

The lessons students miss now could have long-term effects on their lives and on the economy. Elementary school proficiency is an important benchmark for students’ academic success in later years, and children who aren’t proficient in reading by third grade are less likely to graduate high school.

Older students aren’t immune from lifelong impacts. Davis-Kean said she’s concerned current high school students won’t be prepared for the job market or college. The average K-12 student could lose $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings because of learning loss this year, one report estimates.

And so far, it’s unclear if students will have better learning experiences this fall.

Districts are facing operational challenges as they work to reopen schools safely or prepare for more distance learning, but they should also be developing comprehensive instructional plans, said Georgia Heyward, a research analyst at the nonpartisan Center on Reinventing Public Education.

CRPE has studied distance learning and reopening plans and so far hasn’t seen many districts share detailed documents for the fall, which doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t working on these plans behind the scenes, she said — but it’s worrying nonetheless, especially with the first day of school just around the corner.

“If districts are not communicating how they’re going to close gaps between students or how they’re going to focus on instruction this upcoming year … that, to me, is alarming,” Heyward said. 

Districts should lay out how they’re going to identify struggling students and plan to monitor all students closely throughout the year, she said.

A new report from CRPE recommends that states set high expectations and clear requirements for districts and track their progress. Most states, including Minnesota, recommend rather than require that schools adopt certain strategies to support struggling students during remote learning.

By Thursday, few Minnesota districts had released even tentative plans for the fall school year as they awaited a decision from the state. Minneapolis Public Schools announced that it will start the year with remote instruction with the option to reopen some school buildings for “targeted support” like tutoring and technology aid for families.

But even detailed teaching plans might not be enough. Davis-Kean said intensive, targeted instruction will be the only way to help students catch up — which the U.S. school system isn’t set up to provide. Recovering from the losses this year would require extending the school year, adding more time to the school day or both, she said.

“The current (system) is just not going to be enough to overcome the gaps that we’ve been creating,” Davis-Kean said.

Goyah, the Brooklyn Center math teacher, said he and his colleagues broadcast extra lessons over Facebook Live this spring in hopes of reaching more students. Still, he foresees gaps growing between his students — about 80% of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — and those who can afford private tutors.

“I’m anxious,” he said. “The damage is going to be wide, and it’s going to be really deep. It’s going to hurt a select set of communities, and that’s going to be Black, brown and immigrant communities, and Indigenous kids.”

Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.