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Pandemic-Induced Learning Loss is Real: What Can We Do About It?

• Cara Candal

It’s October, and school is back in session, even if it doesn’t look anything like it did this time last year. According to a nationally representative sample, as of August, about half the nation’s district schools were planning for face-to-face instruction, with the other half opting for fully remote learning or a hybrid approach. Private schools are more likely than district schools to offer in-person learning.

While it’s too soon to tell whether remote learning has improved since the spring, one thing is clear: students across the U.S. have suffered large learning losses. These losses would be difficult to recover under normal circumstances, and in the Fall of 2020, nothing is normal.

A recent report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University quantifies pandemic-related learning loss in core subject areas on 19 states.  CREDO finds, for example, that South Carolina students lost the equivalent of 183 days of learning in reading. North Carolina students suffered the least learning loss in reading (57 days), but this comparatively small amount is still substantial.

CREDO’s findings support other studies of pandemic-related learning loss, such as a summer 2020 report by McKinsey & Company, which predicts under one scenario that Black, Hispanic, and low-income students  will lose up to 10, 8, and more than 12 months of learning, respectively. Economists Eric Haushek and Ludger Woessman put learning loss into economic perspective. According to their research, learning loss to date will lead to lower earning potential for students and lower GDP for decades to come. The predicted economic consequence to the U.S. thus far adds up to more than $14 trillion. That figure could increase, they note, if schools can’t pivot quickly in the Fall of 2020. Hanushek and Woessman also suggest that status quo schooling won’t help students to recover learning loss. Students, they say, will require a highly individualized approach.

These are staggering figures, and they illuminate the need for states to act now. So, what should states do? In Oklahoma, Governor Kevin Stitt’s administration will soon launch a “digital wallet,” which will enable qualifying families to purchase everything from computer hardware, software and connectivity to books and other supplies for at-home learning that will help students fill learning gaps.

Programs like Oklahoma’s may help the most affected students recover and continue their learning because they provide families options that they couldn’t otherwise afford. The truth is tutors, online memberships, private schools, and sometimes costly “pandemic pods” are all out of reach for most Americans.

A Proposal: Learning Equity and Progress Grants for Families

More states should consider emulating the approach of Oklahoma and provide direct grants to families to use exclusively for approved educational services. What should states consider when implementing these grants?


States have several options to fund LEAP Grants for students who students who require additional services for learning recovery and continuity. These options include:

  • Using uncommitted CARES funds or future federal stimulus money;
  • Reallocating at least some portion of the state’s contribution to per-pupil spending to a LEAP Grant program.


To determine who is eligible for a LEAP grant, states may consider one of three eligibility models.

  • Focus on students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, no matter where they attend school. This approach would ensure that the most vulnerable students have access to the program.
  • Focus exclusively on students who were enrolled in public school districts in the 2019-20 school year. Students in public school districts were least likely to cite satisfaction with online learning in the spring and are less likely than their charter and private school counterparts to have hybrid or face-to-face instruction in the fall.
  • Provide a grant for all students. Students across school sectors and income brackets suffered from school closures in the Spring of 2020.

No matter which eligibility model they choose, states should emphasize putting the most money in the hands of families who are least likely to have access to technology and supplemental services. For example, if states choose to fund all students or all public school students, they could award grants on a sliding scale, offering the equivalent of the full state contribution to per-pupil spending to students in the lowest income bracket and a fraction of that to students from the wealthiest families.

Allowable uses

Families could use LEAP grants for a wide variety of state-sanctioned education, health, and child-care related expenses, including but not limited to:

  • Computer hardware and software;
  • Internet connectivity;
  • Tutoring or supplemental education services;
  • In-home education and/or care
  • Private school tuition;
  • Special education and education-related telehealth services (including mental and socio-emotional health services); and
  • Approved out-of-school learning experiences

The COVID-19 pandemic has pulled back the curtain on our one-size-fits all system of education. Parents have seen firsthand how difficult it can be to acquire a high-quality, customized education, especially if they don’t have access to the goods and services that help middle-class and wealthy families supplement schooling when it doesn’t fit their needs. States have a golden opportunity to rethink how education is equitably delivered and to ensure that all students can recover lost learning and progress in their education. Some states have seized this unprecedented moment. How many more will follow?

About the author

Cara Candal

Cara Candal serves as Director of Educational Opportunity, focusing on private school choice, for ExcelinEd. Cara has spent the last 10 years working in education policy as a Senior Fellow with both Pioneer Institute and the Center for Education Reform. She was also a founding team member of the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE) and a research assistant professor at Boston University in the Department of Educational Leadership and Development. Cara has authored/edited more than 25 papers and three books on education policy. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Indiana University, a Masters of Arts in Social Science from the University of Chicago and a Doctorate of Education from Boston University.