COVID-19 ‘learning loss’ putting at-risk Minnesota students months behind in school

Tom Rademacher, an eighth grade teacher at St. Anthony-New Brighton School District, poses for a photo on Dec. 29, 2020. Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer.

Martha Holmes’ job as a third-shift security monitor keeps her busy overnight, and this spring she took on a new role that keeps her busy during the day, too: Teacher for her elementary school children, who have been in “distance learning” since March.

Her 11-year-old son is thriving, but her 6-year-old daughter is struggling, Holmes said. She’s falling behind, and Holmes isn’t sure what to do — she’s not a trained teacher. 

“They’re just sending her assignments telling her to read, so how is she supposed to know?” Holmes said. “It’s frustrating.”

Holmes isn’t alone in her exasperation. Experts predicted this spring that distance learning, combined with pandemic disruptions and summer break, would have disastrous, long-lasting effects on student learning — and recent results have affirmed their fears. 

Black, Indigenous, Latino and low-income students have been the most affected, missing up to a year of learning by next June under one estimate — an especially pressing concern in Minnesota, where racial disparities in education are already among the nation’s worst.

“From the point of view of a scholar, and a citizen of Minnesota, I’m extremely worried about the kids who already were behind because of disparities in educational resources and family resources,” said Ann Masten, a University of Minnesota researcher.

We may not know the extent of the loss in Minnesota until at least the end of this school year. Standardized tests were canceled nationwide last spring, eliminating the only — albeit imperfect — source of data to compare student progress between districts or schools. There’s no state requirements that schools use certain criteria or strategies to keep students on track, so there’s no clear picture of how schools across the state are helping — or failing to help — students, either.

Data from some school districts suggests a significant number of students are not learning. In one metro district, nearly 20% of middle school students weren’t doing their work or showing up for virtual class by mid-October, a teacher said.

In Minneapolis Public Schools, roughly 17% of classes taken by high schoolers resulted in no credit this fall, up from 10% during the first quarter last year, according to data from the district. The rate was 35% for classes taken by Native American students, 27% for Hispanic students and 22% for Black students.

Some students will be back in the classroom soon under Gov. Tim Walz’s updated COVID-19 guidance for schools, which allows all elementary schools to resume in-person learning with safety measures in January. Still, getting students of all ages back on track won’t be easy.

“My anxiety levels are skyrocketing, simply because we don’t have the information or the data to understand how Minnesota is doing at a macro level,” said Josh Crosson, executive director of the nonprofit EdAllies. “We’re walking blindly into the current school year and figuring out what we need to be doing.”

‘An 18-month summer’

Before the pandemic, more than 40% of Minnesota students weren’t proficient in reading by fourth grade or math by eighth grade, and the pandemic threatens to set them back even further — which could have lifelong effects on students and the economy.

For instance, fourth grade students who aren’t proficient in reading are less likely to graduate high school or be prepared for the job market, studies suggest. Learning losses this year could cost K-12 students more than $60,000 in lifetime earnings, according to one estimate.

Even a typical summer break puts students — particularly low-income students — at risk of falling behind academically. The pandemic is like an “18-month summer,” Masten said. The time away from the classroom is compounded by low-quality virtual instruction, social isolation, the stress of COVID-19, financial strain and shoddy computers and internet. Students of color and low-income students are disproportionately likely to face these challenges.

Schools made improvements to student learning opportunities this fall compared to the spring, but by September, students were already roughly three months behind, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

McKinsey’s report projects how much learning students could lose by June 2021 based on the quality of their education. In the most optimistic scenario — in which school and student progress return to normal in January — students of color could have lost up to seven months of learning, and white students five months. 

In the worst-case scenario with no improvements to the quality of remote learning, McKinsey predicts the loss will be closer to a full year for students of color and roughly eight months for white students.

Failing grades up as students struggled this fall 

Without statewide standardized test results, policymakers don’t have a full picture of the crisis. Other early indications are at times hopeful but at other times troubling.

In St. Paul Public Schools, an annual reading assessment showed students’ progress this fall was nearly the same as last year, according to the district. At the same time, roughly 34% of classes taken by high schoolers this fall resulted in no credit, which is “disturbing and concerning,” said Kathy Kimani, director of school support.

The district is trying to “balance support with accountability” by connecting students with tutors, mental health counseling and meals, and allowing students to make up credits, she said.

Many districts had to renew their efforts to even get students logged on for distance learning this fall. 

Tom Rademacher, an eighth grade language arts teacher in the St. Anthony-New Brighton School District, said roughly 20% of his school’s students were consistently absent or not doing their schoolwork by October, many of them facing challenging situations at home, like spotty internet or caring for siblings.  

“They suddenly are getting nothing,” Rademacher said of students who aren’t engaged. When students were at school, “at least we had them there and could talk with them and work with them. When kids aren’t logging in, they’re just gone.”

After extensive outreach by school staff, all but three or four students out of roughly 450 are regularly participating now, he said

Like many educators, Rademacher’s feelings about academic progress this year are complicated. He said he believes students will catch up, but even with improved attendance he fears that distance learning will leave students unprepared — and hears the same concerns from them.

“I am very worried that I’m not giving them everything they should get before they get to high school,” Rademacher said. “I lost sleep this week.” 

Even for high-achieving students, distance learning has been difficult.

Bellamy Heaton was used to working independently at Avalon School in St. Paul, where students learn through self-directed projects. Still, Heaton, a senior, had a hard time getting through algebra and physics without the one-on-one math help they received before the pandemic.

“That’s been the big struggle, staying motivated to do my homework when I don’t know what I’m doing and don’t have access to help that day,” Heaton said. “I really had to teach myself in some ways.”

Minnesota’s next steps unclear

Experts recommend districts use assessments, attendance records and knowledge of students’ home lives to identify those who may have fallen behind. Schools should provide intensive tutoring targeted at children who need it most, ideally in-person if possible, researchers say.

This approach has helped students stay on track at Noble Academy, a predominantly Hmong charter school in St. Paul, said Mai Yia Chang, deputy superintendent of academics. 

Even before the pandemic, staff developed plans to address learning loss after breaks, and now they track progress and engagement data more closely than ever to mitigate academic setbacks, Chang said. Noble Academy has been recognized by the state as a high-performing school for reading progress among low-income, Asian and Black students.

“We are laser-like on student achievement. We didn’t get to where we’re at because we made some random errors — we are very targeted on the needs of our students,” she said.

Researchers say states should set high expectations for remote learning, monitor districts’ progress and take action if students are left behind. Minnesota has issued guidance for addressing learning loss, but like many states, there are no requirements that districts implement strategies to help struggling students or track their progress.  

“This is going to have ripple effects for years to come,” Crosson said. “Minnesota missed an opportunity to plan appropriately for this school year. We need to make sure that we’re prepared for future school years — we can’t miss this opportunity again.”

Minnesota Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Heather Mueller said in a written statement that families are in a “tragic” position this school year, as the pandemic has “deeply impacted our students’ education and robbed them of special moments.”

In-person learning is best, she said, and Walz’s recent announcement that elementary schools can bring students back to class “reinforces our commitment to our students and their learning.” The announcement was an update to the state’s COVID-19 education plan, which has allowed districts to use in-person learning, distance learning or a blend of the two based on the spread of the coronavirus in their communities.

“Educators and school staff have gone above and beyond under extraordinary circumstances,” Mueller said. “Educators are still the experts when it comes to monitoring the progress of the students in their class and families should feel empowered to ask questions and get involved if they have concerns.”

Bernie Burnham, the vice president of Education Minnesota, which is the state’s influential teachers union, said in a written statement that the “biggest concern right now for educators is students’ socioemotional and physical health.”

The union — which represents more than 70,000 teachers — is working on a set of recommendations for supporting students when they return to school buildings, Burnham said, including improving technology and internet access; providing mental health services; planning for potential future closures; and cancelling standardized tests in the spring. 

“At best, the deeply flawed MCA (Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment) tests give a snapshot of how groups of students are progressing compared to how groups of students were doing historically. Everyone knows this isn’t a normal year. The time and money wasted on testing could be better spent educating our students,” Burnham said in the statement.

Experts say policymakers and educators should be thinking about how they’ll identify and remedy learning loss in years to come — a challenge, given the difficult months ahead.

In Farmington Public Schools, teachers are working with colleagues from different grades this year to help students catch up in the future. Third grade teachers, for example, know what second graders are learning now so they can cover any gaps next year, said Lisa Edwards, director of elementary learning.

Even when schools follow best practices for student learning, it’s not enough for some families. Holmes, the north Minneapolis mom, said staff at Lucy Laney Elementary “go hard for their students,” but on top of distance learning, the family is dealing with stress far beyond teachers’ control.

The family recently moved into a house from their former duplex — where they heard gunshots aimed at the second-floor neighbors. Now the gunfire isn’t in their backyard, but shots still ring out on the surrounding blocks, Holmes said.

Distance learning has also strained their budgets. Holmes has struggled to keep up with the bills for their electricity and internet, which is spotty at best, and she doesn’t qualify for food assistance. Free meals from Minneapolis Public Schools help, but that only goes so far when the family is struggling in so many ways, she said.

“They have the free food, but what else are you helping us with?” Holmes said.

Abdi Mohamed contributed reporting.

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.