U.S. COVID-19 Learning Gap

The shift to online learning had several effects on how students learned during the Spring 2020 and Fall 2020 semesters. Several studies have shown that online learning is less effective than in-person learning. Because of this, parents, educators, and policymakers have grown increasingly concerned about a potential learning gap that may arise following the year-long period of online instruction. There were also several concerns regarding the interruption of learning when initial shut-downs were occurring and the subsequent transition to online platforms that resulted in days of instruction being lost. According to Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, averages for days of instruction lost for the Spring 2020 semester ranged from 57 to 183 days in Reading and 136 to 232 days in Math.

Several experts have compared the potential COVID-19 learning gap to the phenomenon dubbed the "Summer Slide" where students lose learning abilities and forget academic content after being out of school for the summer. Studies show that the more students miss school, the worse they perform. In addition, several school districts are having trouble getting students to log in to online school. The Los Angeles school district reported that up to a third of their students were not logging into class in April 2020 and that schools in rural and underserved areas have had trouble gaining access to the internet and technological resources.

Given that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges across society, there are a variety of reasons why students may not be logging in for online instruction. Some students may not have access to the proper technology and internet access. Others may be hindered by home factors like having to take care of other siblings at home, not having a quiet space to focus, or having to work a job during the pandemic. Also, students may not feel motivated to complete school work for other reasons like the widespread implementation of lax grading policies or lack of student-teacher relationships.However, no matter the reason, lack of educational engagement will likely result in decreased learning and educational achievement.

A major concern with the learning gap arising due to COVID-19 is the variability of online instruction across student populations. Students with consistent access to quality online educational instruction will likely experience less of a gap than students who experience barriers to access. The effects of long-term distance learning are likely to vary depending on the age and grade level of the students. Elementary school students may especially struggle with distance learning, especially without adult support, as they are still developing the skills needed to regulate their behaviors/emotions, attention spans, and learning skills.

Socioeconomic implications
While overall virtual learning reports higher rates of absenteeism than traditional methods of schools, absentee rates remain higher in schools that are situated in lower-income communities. Given that the more school days a student misses, the worse they retain information and perform on educational assessments, many are concerned with the effects absenteeism may have on low-income students. According to an April 2020 study conducted by Education Week, 64% of teachers in schools with a large number of low-income students said that their pupils faced technology limitations, as compared to only 21% of teachers in schools with a small number of low-income students.

Many stakeholders worry that the effects of COVID-19 on lower-income students could last well beyond the pandemic. In a study conducted by Yale economist Fabrizio Zilibotti, it was determined that students coming from the bottom 20% of income levels will be the most likely to experience negative and long-term effects of school closings. The study found that students in low-income communities quickly lost several skills and forgot key concepts they had learned before the pandemic, but students in affluent communities did not experience severe learning loss. The assumption here is that wealthy and affluent parents have the time and resources to dedicate to their children's virtual education, while low-income parents do not have the same access to resources.

In addition to economic inequalities among students, there has been evidence of racial inequalities. According to a study conducted by McKinsey, up to 40% of Black students and 30% of Hispanic students received no online instruction during school shutdowns, as opposed to only 10% of white students. Latino and Black students are also more likely to be enrolled in school with large proportions of low-income students, which as stated earlier face a higher rate of technology limitations. Parents of Black and Latino students are more likely to be employed in sectors where they cannot "telecommute," which means that students with these parents will likely not have an adult at home to facilitate their education.