May 29, 2020

Summer Learning Loss and the COVID Slide

Kevin Dorsey, Ed.D.
An illustration of a laptop sitting next to a cat near a window next to the words Summer Learning Loss and the COVID Slide

Student regression over the summer has been commonly referred to as the “summer slide” by many in the educational community. The summer slide occurs when students experience summer learning loss when they are not in school, particularly in regards to reading and math knowledge. Students’ knowledge loss during the summer amounts to at least one month of instruction each year, sometimes up to three months. Although academic regression has been researched on students over the course of summer break, no research has been conducted on what happens to students who have not been in school for five months versus the average 2-3 months for summer break.

The Summer Slide and COVID Slide

There is a major concern in the education community that academic regression caused by COVID-19, casually dubbed “the COVID slide,” could far exceed those of a typical summer. Summer slide research conducted by NWEA has shown that student regression over summer months happens in both reading and math. NWEA’s preliminary estimates of the COVID slide suggest that students will return to school in the fall with 70 percent of the learning gains in reading, compared to the typical school year. What is especially concerning is that students may return to school next year with even smaller learning gains in math—less than 50 percent. These estimated summer slide statistics don’t even take into consideration the impact on economically disadvantaged communities, which is greater than those in non-economically disadvantaged communities.

In the current climate, schools are struggling with simply getting students to show up to class. This issue has been reported in districts of all socioeconomic classes. With more than a month of school still remaining, there were even parents saying online that “1st grade is over.” For many in the education community, instruction had ended before the school year was officially over. For all of those in the education community, the summer slide is now exacerbated by the COVID slide.

Students and Educators Face More Challenges

As this situation continues to unfold, it’s important to remember that students are dealing with more than a pandemic. They are currently learning in a way in which they have never had to before. Not only are students struggling, but so are their parents. Parents who work full-time jobs and have no prior teaching experience are now pulling double-duty between their jobs and homeschooling. Without a trained educator or dedicated time for a full school day at home, students may already be lacking optimal instruction. Coupled with the typical regression that happens every summer, it comes as no surprise that students may be even further behind when they enter the next school year.

What will become an even bigger challenge for school leaders to decide is whether a child is suffering from a true learning disability or if they regressed so much that they need more focused remediation. This may result in children being misidentified and placed incorrectly in various courses. Parents are concerned that students will either be identified as special ed too quickly or not quickly enough and, therefore, lose precious time on remediation.

Teachers Prepare for the Future

With the start of the 2020 school year still unknown, school leaders are not only planning for the possibility of remote learning again, but also filling in the lost instruction from the current academic year. Educators have made a variety of recommendations for the educational recovery plan, from students repeating their current grade, to students attending school throughout the summer, to remediation for the most at-risk students. There’s also the potential for schools to not reopen in the fall, creating even more concern over lost instructional time. And the students who are the most vulnerable—children who are homeless, living in poverty, or with disabilities—could be playing catch-up for years. Students among these populations have the greatest challenge with online learning, including digital inequities, which increases their risk for education regression.

There is no magic cure for the inevitable slide due to the interruption in instruction this year, but district leaders and teachers can prepare to enter into the 2020-2021 academic school year in several ways. Schools may opt to offer a hybrid learning experience that combines remote learning and in-person classes, with students entering the building at staggered times or in shifts. This reimagining of learning involves an online component that allows the curriculum to be personalized for each student. Additionally, schools offering online resources for summer learning are hoping to keep their students engaged throughout the next few months. With the blend between the spring semester and summer, students could be continuously learning into the next school year.

In order to mitigate education regression, students will need more remediation at the start of the new academic year than ever before. Schools that want to take steps now may want to consider key criteria to help mitigate the COVID slide. The upcoming break provides an opportunity to incorporate some of the above tips for preventing the summer slide—to start planning those activities and lessons in both a physical classroom setting and a virtual one. As one superintendent put it: “It’s not a matter of if we will return to school; it’s a matter of when remote learning will end.”

Visit our Distance Learning Resources Center for resources to support your students' learning continuity.