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Coronavirus school closures could cause epic slide in math and literacy skills

Key Points
  • Due to coronavirus school closures, students could be losing 30% of reading gains and 50% of math skills, according to a new report by the Northwest Evaluation Association.
  • Keeping kids reading and engaged with academic material can prevent skills from atrophying.
  • Educational institutions including Scholastic and Khan Academy, as well as children's authors, are rolling out special programs in response to Covid-19 to help kids stay on track.

With more school districts deciding not to return to the classroom for the remainder of the academic year, parents are increasingly worried about the impact on their child's education. According to a survey by EdChoice Public Opinion Tracker and Morning Consult, 43% of parents are concerned about their children missing instruction time.

Those fears are not unfounded. Educators have long observed the "summer slide," the learning loss many children experience when they return to school in the fall. It can take several months to return to baseline.

"We know from a lot of research that the summer slide is real; then you take that effect and multiply it by the number of months due to coronavirus," said Scott Hartl, president and CEO of EL Education, a not-for-profit K–12 curriculum provider. 

Bill Gates: Schools will likely resume in the fall
Bill Gates: Schools will likely resume in the fall

With parents distracted by their own stresses, perhaps due to a job loss or the new demands of remote working, keeping up with learning can fall by the wayside. The economic divide can also exacerbate the learning loss if schoolchildren don't have access to reliable computers and internet access.

Last month Bill Gates told Becky Quick on "Squawk Box" that "low-income kids will be hurt the most by these school closures."

He added, "If your school doesn't have that online capability, you've lost three months of learning. Different school districts have decided some don't do online learning because it would be unjust in terms of the kids who don't have online access, so that's really a dilemma."

A summer slide on steroids

According to research from Northwest Evaluation Association, an educational assessment not-for-profit, kids in third to fifth grade typically lose about 20% of their literacy gains over the summer and 27% of their math skills. A new report from the organization suggests that coronavirus learning loss could be much steeper. The NWEA researchers believe that 30% of literacy and 50% of math gains could be lost. 

And even when students do come back to school, in-person school might be intermittent, with closures occurring in response to periodic outbreaks of coronavirus until a vaccine is widely available. Educators caution parents to prepare for further disruptions. 

"We've taken the typical loss we see for the summer and extrapolated it out," explained Chris Minnich, chief executive officer of NWEA, about how much in learning gains kids could be giving up. "These are projections, but we believe they are fairly accurate."

With parents distracted by their own stresses, perhaps due to a job loss or the new demands of remote working, keeping up with learning can fall by the wayside.

Students in lower grades typically experience more learning loss because they are more dependent on their teachers for learning. Middle school kids are able to work more independently and therefore keep up their learning, Minnich said. 

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Intervention is critical

Rather than lament the lost learning, educators say that intervention now can go a long way to keeping kids on track. Summer literacy programs have proved to help kids hang on to their literacy and math skills, and parents must employ them now.

"The activities parents and educators engage in between now and September are going to be really important to making sure that this learning loss doesn't happen," said Minnich. "We can change this."

Low-income kids will be hurt the most by these school closures. ... Different school districts have decided some don't do online learning because it would be unjust in terms of the kids who don't have online access, so that's really a dilemma.
Bill Gates

A 2013 review of 41 studies by Harvard University researchers James Kim and David Quinn concluded that summer intervention is effective in helping kids, especially those from low-income backgrounds, retain reading skills. Educators believe that those types of interventions could work now.

"When the conditions include the following, kid experience less learning loss: good connectivity for both teacher and student, teacher engagement on a daily basis, a parent that has the time to be engaging with kids," said Hartl of EL Education.

What's more, if school closures continue beyond the fall, school districts will be much more prepared to deliver instruction remotely, said Pam Allyn, a literacy expert and senior vice president at Scholastic

Authors and organizations pivoting to help

While you may not have access to teachers or in-person summer reading programs, the good news is that technology has made it possible for parents to access academic materials for their kids digitally. Organizations have pivoted during coronavirus by starting programs early or making materials free. 

Below are some ideas to help your kids avoid the coronavirus slide. 

Scholastic's Summer Read-a-Palooza: Partnering with the United Way, publisher Scholastic reimagined its summer Read-a-Palooza program to be completely kid driven to encourage independent learning during the coronavirus lockdown and to ensure engaging experiences to keep kids reading this summer. The free digital program launched earlier this year to accommodate school closures — it runs May 4 through Sept. 4 — and can be found on Scholastic's Home Base. It is designed to increase book access through its Reading Streaks portal, which unlocks a donation of 100,000 print books from Scholastic, distributed by United Way Worldwide. Kids will be able to create their own reading zone, download books, track their reading streaks and meet authors. 

Scholastic updated its digital summer reading program to be completely kid driven for independent learning during the coronavirus lockdown. Kids will have access to games, live events and 100,000 books.

Khan Academy: Long used by parents to supplement their children's school curriculum, Khan Academy has now created free curriculum plans for different subjects and suggested daily academic schedules by grade. The site provides instructional videos to introduce subjects and then uses quizzes to test kids' knowledge.

Epic!: Epic! is a digital library with more than 40,000 titles, including read-to-me books, for kids 12 and under. Teachers can request free access through June 30, which they can share with students. Parents can get one month free, after which it costs $7.99 per month. Epic! Uses games and incentives to keep kids reading and exploring topics that interest them.

Online book-and-author events: A number of children's book authors have responded to Covid-19 school closures by hosting readalouds and drawing lessons. Although these are live events, each are archived so if you miss them, you can still participate at a later date. Here are a few notable authors offering activities now:

  • Young adult author Neil Gaiman's site features games, printouts and readalouds of beloved books such as "The Graveyard Book" and "Coraline."
  • Every Thursday in May, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts education artist-in-residence Mo Willems ("Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!") will lead audiences in making doodles at 1 p.m. EDT.
  • Supabuddy Dav Pilkey of "Captain Underpants" and "Dogman" fame hosts a free weekly activity series every Friday called Dav Pilkey at Home.
  • Author and illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka of "Lunch Lady" and "Jedi Academy" hosts a daily drawing lesson on his YouTube channel.
  • Children's book author and illustrator Grace Lin's YouTube channel is full of readalouds and drawing lessons showing fans how to draw a Chinese crab of harmony and a Chinese prosperity toad, among other characters. 

Your local library: Libraries do so much more than simply lend books. These local treasures have long been community gathering places and reliable sources of information. Check with your library to find out if the summer reading programs they've done in the past will go forward this summer — albeit at a distance. Keep in mind that some of the incentives libraries use to get kids to participate, such as gift certificates or coupons to local businesses, may not be a viable option while Covid-19 is still active. 

5 tips for stress-free at-home learning

Finally, literacy experts recommend that parents take a deep breath and relax. Caring for children's emotional well-being during an unprecedented pandemic must be your first priority. The barrage of online resources can be overwhelming. Instead, foster a joy of reading in your children by tapping into their interests and passions.

"Don't be hard on yourself," Allyn of Scholastic says. "It's a transitional time for everyone." She offers the following five tips to motivate your child to freely up their literacy skills.

Compliment and affirm. Take note of positive reading moments and celebrate them with your child. For example, stop and say: "I love how you are working independently," or "I really appreciate how you are reading to your baby brother."

Rename it. Create new, fun names for different parts of the learning day and have your child create posters to identify and decorate these learning spaces. For example, reading time can become the "Cozy Reading Corner." These slight changes can make learning more inviting and less stressful for families.

Find community. Kids are missing the connections with their teachers and peers. Find a reading community to join and see how your child's own reading can lead to excitement, motivation and opportunities to "do good." Families can also become a part of that community by creating a designated reading ritual whereby your child shares a story they were reading or a new author they discovered.

Celebrate the creative spirit. Use sidewalk chalk to commemorate one thing that was learned that day, or decorate windows with ideas and characters from books. Other ways to celebrate include having your child create a song or game out of a book they've read or inviting them to retell a story while you prepare dinner. 

Deepak Chopra on balancing health, wellness during coronavirus outbreak
Deepak Chopra on balancing health, wellness during coronavirus outbreak

Take breaks. Take deep breaths together and relax by browsing a book or telling old family stories. This moment for relaxation supports children's social-emotional and brain development and is beneficial for parents and caregivers as well.

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.