As of May 15, 48 states, four U.S. territories and the District of Columbia had ordered or recommended that school buildings be closed for the rest of the academic year, according to Education Week. Shutdowns in the wake of COVID-19 have affected at least 124,000 public and private schools and 55.1 million students, the outlet reported.
To get a better understanding of how children in the U.S. could be affected by current school closures, journalists can look to research on how students have responded to prior disruptions of face-to-face instruction.
Academic studies suggest education interruptions can have short- and long-term consequences. They also find impacts can vary depending on numerous factors, including the age of the student, time of year that campuses close and children’s socioeconomic background.
As journalists reach out to sources to ask for data and interviews, we aim to make their jobs easier by helping them get up to speed on what the research says about how student achievement is impacted by school closures and other education interruptions.
Below, we’ve gathered and summarized a sampling of academic studies on the topic. We also share some great tips for reporting on education disruptions and student achievement from an education researcher and a former school district superintendent.
Projecting the Potential Impact of COVID-19 School Closures on Academic Achievement
Kuhfeld, Megan; et al. Working Paper No. 20-226 from Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, May 2020.
U.S. public school students likely will start the new school year having learned 37% to 50% of what they ordinarily would have learned in math had schools remained open, according to preliminary estimates from researchers at the University of Virginia, Brown University and the nonprofit education research organization NWEA. “In some grades, students may come back close to a full year behind in math,” they write in this new working paper, released by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform.
The researchers also estimate that, on average, kids likely will begin the fall 2020 semester with 63% to 68% of the language arts knowledge they would have gained in a typical school year. Not all students will lose ground, however. They predict the top third of students will have continued to make gains in reading despite education interruptions.
If that happens, teaching might be more challenging in the fall. “Students will likely return not only with lower achievement (on average), but with a wider range of academic skills that may require teachers to further differentiate instruction,” writes the research team, led by NWEA research scientist Megan Kuhfeld.
To generate preliminary estimates for how student learning could be impacted by school closures in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, researchers analyzed data from prior studies on student absenteeism. They also examined data on learning patterns among a national sample of 5 million U.S. students in grades 3 to 8 across two school years — 2017-18 and 2018-19 — and the summer break in between.
“In this study, we produced a set of possible scenarios for learning loss rates during the extended period when schools are physically closed and students are not receiving normal face-to-face instruction,” Kuhfeld and her colleagues write. “These projections can help prepare educators and parents for the degree of variability in student achievement to expect when school resumes, including over the course of the upcoming school year.”
The researchers explain that their estimates don’t take into account many factors that likely are influencing learning during the current shutdown — changes in parents’ employment status and access to food, for example. “Families with financial resources, stable employment, and flexible work-from-home and childcare arrangements will likely weather this storm more easily than families who are renting their housing, working in low-paying fields that are hardest hit by the economic impacts, and experiencing higher rates of food insecurity, family instability, and other shocks from this disruption,” they write.
Flaking Out: Student Absences and Snow Days as Disruptions of Instructional Time
Goodman, Joshua. National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, June 2014.
In this study, researcher Joshua Goodman investigated how school closings for snow and student absenteeism in Massachusetts affect student achievement. His analysis reveals that, overall, there is “a strong relationship between student absences and achievement but no relationship between school closures and achievement.”
However, when Goodman examined the data more closely, he found evidence of a link between school closures and lower test scores at public schools where a high percentage of students live in low-income households. “Closures generally have little effect on achievement except in poor schools,” writes Goodman, now an associate professor of economics at Brandeis University.
Each day of closure, the study finds, is associated with a drop in scores on the math and English language arts sections of the Massachusetts state exam.
The study sample comprises all students enrolled in Massachusetts public schools between the 2003 and 2010 academic years who had no more than 60 absences.
Unscheduled School Closings and Student Performance
Marcotte, Dave E.; Hemelt, Steven W. Education Finance and Policy, Summer 2008.
Unscheduled school closings hurt student scores on statewide tests in Maryland, but the impact was largest when schools closed during the spring semester, this study finds. It also finds that these education interruptions posed greater harm to the academic performance of children in the early grades.
Two University of Maryland researchers examined the relationship between school closures for snow and student test scores in reading and math between 1994 and 2005. The researchers looked specifically at the scores of children in grades 3, 5 and 8.
“Snow early in the season has a negative effect only in the case of performance on third-grade reading exams,” the authors write. “Snow in December, but not in January, has a consistently negative effect on pass rates across subjects and grades. … It is disruption in February that appears to have the most consistent, negative impact on test performance.”
When there were five unscheduled school closures during the winter, the number of third graders who received satisfactory scores in reading and math was 3% lower than during winters with no closures. In winters with 10 unscheduled closings, more than 5% fewer third graders received passing reading and math scores. In both scenarios, these education interruptions had less impact on students in grades 5 and 8.
Social Impacts of Hurricane Katrina on Displaced K-12 Students and Educational Institutions in Coastal Alabama Counties: Some Preliminary Observations
Picou, J. Steven; Marshall, Marshall. Sociological Spectrum, 2007.
This study looks at how student learning and behaviors changed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which damaged or destroyed dozens of public schools in Louisiana and Mississippi in August 2005. The study, based largely on interviews, focuses on displaced students who had been evacuated to Mobile and Baldwin counties in Alabama.
“Our discussions with school district social work counselors revealed that some displaced students seemed to have lost their ability to concentrate on assignments and manifested symptoms of clinical depression,” write the authors, J. Steven Picou, a sociology professor at the University of South Alabama, and Brent K. Marshall, a sociology professor at the University of Central Florida who died in 2008.
In the paper, researchers provide bulleted lists of the challenges and unforeseen consequences described in interviews they had with school personnel, parents and students. One major problem identified: A shortage of adequate and affordable housing forced displaced families into a pattern of ‘‘serial relocation,’’ moving from school to school within a school district.
Picou and Marshall indicate that, at the time of the study, many displaced students continued to experience stress, anxiety and uncertainty about their futures. “This fact has perpetuated poor academic performance, discipline problems, and irregular school attendance,” they write. “In general, these negative social, psychological, and educational impacts may continue for some students well into the future.”
The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores: A Narrative and Meta-Analytic Review
Cooper, Harris; et al. Review of Educational Research, Autumn 1996.
This paper examines almost a century of research on the effects of summer vacation on student achievement. A key takeaway: Student test scores fall over the summer months — a loss equivalent to “about one month on a grade-level equivalent scale or one tenth of a standard deviation relative to spring test scores,” writes the research team, led by Harris Cooper, now a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.
The team’s analysis of the 39 studies spanning from 1906 to 1994 also shows that taking a summer break from school impacts academic subjects differently. Losses in learning are more dramatic for math-related subjects than for reading and language arts. Math computation and spelling skills deteriorate most, researchers explain.
“Cognitive psychologists suggest that factual and procedural learning requires extensive practice,” they write. “Thus, the relative lack of opportunity to practice computation and spelling over summer vacation may mean that these facts and procedural skills are most susceptible to decay.”
The researchers also find that kids from lower-income families backslide more than middle-income students do. “In fact, middle-class students appeared to gain on grade-equivalent reading recognition tests over summer, while lower-class students lost on them,” they write.
Looking beyond the research: some additional reporting tips
While research offers important insights, two experts at Teachers College, Columbia University — Alex Bowers, an associate professor of education leadership, and Jeffrey M. Young, a professor of practice in education leadership — note there are substantial differences between major education interruptions of the past and current school shutdowns. A key distinction: School officials shuttered campuses across the U.S. several weeks ago, but teachers are providing lessons to children at home, although with varying approaches and success.
“It’s difficult to extrapolate from [research about] other types of school closures — it’s an unprecedented time for this many schools to close for this long,” Bowers says.
Another difference: When school officials have ordered campuses closed because of severe weather such as a snowstorm or hurricane, they typically make up for lost class time by extending the academic year or shortening student breaks, Bowers notes. It’s unclear whether and how school districts will try to make up for instructional time lost as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bowers suggests that in addition to consulting research, journalists should track down and interview people who were in leadership positions in schools that closed amid outbreaks of another infectious disease — H1N1 — in 2009. Current decision-makers could probably learn something from prior administrations, he says.
“We know that 700-plus schools closed, including many schools in New York City and Fort Worth, 10 years ago,” Bowers says. “We know what schools those were. From a journalistic perspective, it would be interesting to talk to those leaders and teachers and ask, ‘What do they think about what’s going on right now and what are the issues we should be surfacing, especially when it comes to coming back in the fall and questions about vaccine rollout and lost instructional time?’ These kinds of questions have been dealt with. Yes, H1N1 is a different pandemic, but there was a large response and it was just 10 years ago.”
Young, who was superintendent of schools in Cambridge, Massachusetts from 2009 through 2016, also recommends journalists build on what’s known from research on education interruptions. His advice: Ask custodians, transportation managers, teaching assistants and other school district employees how they are experiencing the crisis and what concerns they have about opening campuses later this year.
Custodians, for example, can talk about the challenges of keeping classrooms, locker rooms, bathrooms, hallways and other areas sanitized — a monumental task, especially at high schools, which can house thousands of students and faculty at any one time, Young explains.
Administrators who oversee student transportation will likely raise questions about how school districts will manage social distancing on school buses and how districts will afford and find the additional buses and drivers they will need if they reduce the number of kids assigned to each bus. Meanwhile, teachers can speak to the social, emotional and physical toll all of these changes have had and could have in the months to come for educators and students — an issue Young says has not been examined enough in news coverage.
“Research is powerful,” Young says. “But drill down to the stuff the superintendents are worrying about every day, down to what it would actually look like in practice.”
Looking for more education reporting resources? Check out our six tips for reporting on how COVID-19 school closures affect student learning. We’ve also gathered research on student behavior during prior campus closings and how moving from in-person instruction to online learning tends to affect children’s academic progress.