The New Normal: Learning Losses from COVID

By Aima Anwar

The global economic implications of COVID-19 have been dominating the headlines this year, but one facet of today’s economy that is often overlooked is the learning loss that can quantifiably wreak havoc on future GDP. School closures are devastating in the short-term, but the resulting gap in learning and ineffective transition to remote platforms is projected to leave lasting learning deficits in today’s students that will effectively transform their economic productivity for generations. 

Research shows that education is an investment in human capital that is strongly correlated with both income and wealth. On average, about half of economic growth corresponds to labor productivity generated by attaining postsecondary education. An interruption in continuous and effective education, known as a learning loss, can limit the workforce’s productivity, and we are experiencing a greater national learning loss than ever before in recent years due to COVID. 

This is not an entirely new issue. Educational inequity in marginalized communities has deprived the economy of billions of dollars in productivity prior to COVID. The achievement gap between white and Black or Hispanic students is estimated to have cost the U.S. economy $310 billion to $525 billion, or 2 to 4 percent of GDP, a year. Between high and low income students, this gap is equivalent to a 3 to 5 percent yearly GDP loss. The sum of these deficits is comparable to an economic recession. If these achievement gaps were closed a decade prior to COVID, today’s GDP would have been $332 billion to $705 billion higher. There are several phenomena contributing to these inequities, from spatial inequalities, like disparities in school and family resources, to systemic failures of standardized testing and special education programs. School closures and ineffective remote learning measures have only deepened this achievement gap, impacting minority and low-income students the most. 

Adjusted for quality, COVID resulted in an estimated loss of 0.6 years of schooling with five months of school closures. Some schools shut down altogether, but most switched to remote platforms or established socially distanced classes, encountering problems with both methods. In March, 28 U.S. states did not mandate online learning, causing many student constituents to not receive any education at all for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. For those that have been continuing virtually, many students remain unaccounted for, and research shows online learning is not nearly as effective as in-person schooling, One remote platform reports that 60% of low income students log on regularly, as opposed to 90% of high income students. Factors like lack of access to technology, parental inability to assist in learning, and inability of disabled students to learn remotely have all served as barriers to the transition process for many students nationwide. Such barriers to education are disproportionately faced by the same underprivileged students that were disadvantaged from the achievement gap long before the existence of COVID. The effects are disastrous.

Using this five month learning deficit as a baseline, the resulting average student learning loss in North America is projected to be $1,838 per year, adding up to a $33,534 loss over the lifetimes of current students. The loss in current U.S. GDP is estimated at 13% over the work lives of today’s students, with global projections of $10 trillion losses in productivity. The U.S. stands to lose a great deal in the long-term. Studies have shown that the students whose education was interrupted by World War II were less skilled and earned less throughout their work lives than those from previous generations would. 20 years from now, when the majority of current students are participants in the workforce, it is highly likely that they will be less productive than before. Since a high productivity growth rate is essential to propel the U.S. economy to new heights and maintain its competitiveness with other nations, it is imminent that this learning loss will be detrimental if not combatted properly.

The effects of the learning loss can be mitigated primarily by government intervention on the local level. Regardless of whether school districts have allowed in-person classes or proceeded with online learning, it is important that schools address the damage that has already been done. Advanced training for educators, communication with parents, revised curriculums, and supplemental educational programs, all with a specific focus on helping marginalized students, will be beneficial. If effective measures are taken on the micro level to recover losses from learning, in aggregate, the projected GDP loss from COVID can be reduced. But lost instruction in recent months is not the only obstacle that needs to be overcome. 

Since the learning loss hits underprivileged students the hardest, it is urgent that we acknowledge and improve upon the structural inequities that have plagued our education system for a long time. Black, Hispanic, and low income students were struggling long before the coronavirus outbreak; the only difference now is that this has worsened, and more students experienced the educational barriers their disadvantaged counterparts have been facing. In a way, COVID has done us a service by highlighting the fact that preexisting issues in our educational structures are intensifying and need to be addressed with innovative solutions, at least for the sake of helping the economy. 

When all schools open nationwide and economic recovery is further underway, we cannot and should not expect to return back to normal. The old normal had its own issues, but we can do one better by using new modes of instruction as a launchpad for progress, rather than reversion. □


Work Cited

  1. Image source
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