The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virtual learning set poor children even further behind, study shows

The achievement gap was smaller in school districts that kept students in classrooms

Kayden Curtis asks a visiting speaker a question during her eighth-grade health and wellness class at the Baltimore Design School last fall. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Students in high-poverty schools paid a far higher price for virtual learning than did their peers in low-poverty schools, leaving vulnerable students even further behind than when the pandemic started, according to a working paper published last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The authors focused on the costs of virtual learning and warned of dire consequences from not addressing the gaps.

“If the achievement losses become permanent,” the study warns, “there will be major implications for future earnings, racial equity and income inequality, especially in states where remote instruction was common.”

One crucial finding showed that the gaps were not as severe in districts that held more in-person schooling during the pandemic.

“The most important results in our study was that remote instruction had very disparate impacts in high-poverty and low- poverty schools,” said Thomas Kane, an education and economics professor at Harvard and one of the co-authors of the paper. Kane said it’s not clear why students in high-poverty schools lost so much more ground but said it’s “likely reflecting difference in access to broadband access at home, devices at home, study space at home.”

Students in poverty suffered a double-whammy: They stood to lose the most from virtual learning — and they, on average, spent more time learning remotely. High-poverty schools had on average 5.5 more weeks of remote instruction than mid- and low-poverty schools, the study found. Black and Latino students were also more likely to learn online.

These schools did less to contain covid. Their students flourished.

The paper is likely to fuel the debate over whether keeping students out of classrooms last school year was prudent. Many big city districts, like those in Los Angeles and D.C., remained closed until the second half of the school year or operated in hybrid mode for most of the school year, choosing to be more cautious in the face of pandemic uncertainty.

This happened in part because of the pressure from teacher unions, which voiced reservations about returning to the classroom. But many families of color — whose communities were hardest-hit by the pandemic — also chose to keep their children home, expressing more fears about safety than White parents.

In many GOP-led states, governors forced school districts to reopen and in some cases threatened their funding. While gaps between students in high- and low-poverty schools persist in districts that remained open for the entire 2020-2021 school year, they did not grow during the pandemic.

The nation’s public school system has long been beset by inequality, which is reflected in everything from the buildings students learn in to the number of books in the library to the level of experience of the teachers in front of the classrooms. Students of color and those in poverty tend to attend schools that have fewer resources than their affluent White peers, compounding and perpetuating other inequalities. In 2018, a study by the Education Trust, a nonprofit that focuses on school equity issues, found that Black, Latino and Native American students receive 13 percent less funding than White students.

Some families of color remain wary of returning to classrooms as new school year begins

But the pandemic has highlighted educational inequality and created a new sense of urgency to address it. A year ago, the American Rescue Plan provided $190 billion for schools, with much of the funding targeted at high-poverty schools.

“The pandemic shed a light on a situation that has existed for a very long time, which is that bright and eager Black and Latino students and students from low-income communities … who want and deserve amazing educational opportunities aren’t getting them,” said Allison Socol of the Education Trust.

She said she hopes this paper — and the pandemic — “will be a call to action and will light a fire under school leaders and policymakers and the public to do what has been needed for a long time.”

Both she and Kane emphasized the importance of schools directing the windfall of federal money from the American Rescue Plan to proven academic interventions, such as tutoring or extending the school year. Districts are required to spend only 20 percent of the funds to address learning loss, but they said school leaders should be allocating far more.

“I’m most concerned the catch-up plans that districts are working on are just nowhere near the magnitude to make up for these losses,” Kane said.

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