Dr. Mary Dickerson, Head of Lower School
and David Roth, Head of Middle School

Covid-19 and Learning Loss: How the Right Setting and Supports Can Help

Two young students working at a large table.

Simply put: it’s been a rough year. COVID-19 has taken a toll on people and communities in ways that we will all continue to process for years and generations to come. The pandemic’s impact on education is particularly great, and schools and families have worked to figure out how to keep students engaged and learning during this time. Logistically, emotionally, academically . . . it’s been challenging. And inevitably, many students have lost some ground.

In surveys conducted by Cognia Innovation Lab in late April through June 2020, nearly 60% of parents who responded said that they didn’t think their child was ready for their current grade (and students across grade levels agreed). And the concerns aren’t limited to academics; a majority of parents are also worried about their children’s access to extracurricular activities, their ability to maintain social connections, and their emotional well-being in general.

At our most recent Open House for prospective families, many parents shared concerns about their child’s lack of progress during the pandemic. At McLean School, we’re all about meeting students where they are and moving them forward–an approach that serves students well in regular times, and now more than ever. We’re happy to share our best practices and strategies when it comes to mitigating learning loss. Let’s take a look at them below:

Differentiated Instruction

The smaller the class, the easier it can be to identify and evaluate each student’s progress as you go along. While our average Middle School class size is just around nine students and in the Lower School even smaller, we recognize that’s not the norm for most. Schools should employ small group instruction whenever possible, especially if assessments show a student’s academic skill set is below grade level. And speaking of assessments: while formative and summative assessments are useful–especially when students are new to a school–informal assessments can, and should, be ongoing to allow teachers to be responsive in real time.

At McLean, when concerns arise, we have the expertise in house to address them, with reading specialists, math specialists, occupational therapists, and others. In the Middle School, we’ve also implemented a “bonus period” in the day, which is the perfect time for students to get extra help without feeling like they’re missing out on even more content. In the Lower School during home-based instruction (virtual learning), we have offered office hours to parents to support their child’s learning and extra optional classes for the students, such as movement, to enrich their learning.

Relationship Building

Connection is key to student success and building relationships should be a priority from day one. Everyone has a story to tell, and as educators it’s upon us to listen. Getting to know each child as a person helps to better understand who they are as a student: how they learn and what they need to succeed.

Students who feel connected and cared for are more willing to push themselves and be open to feedback and growth. At McLean, part of what that looks like is ensuring that the student knows what they’re doing well. Saying “So you’re having a hard time with math right now . . . but look at all your progress in this other area” makes all the difference. And it’s not just the teacher-student relationship that’s important, but also children’s relationships with one another, because a strong sense of community and belonging is a powerful motivator when it comes to learning.

Structure and Expectations

Knowing what to expect and when helps students stay on track, even when the terrain gets bumpy. Structure benefits students in so many ways; it helps to build trust and a sense of safety, eliminating doubt and distraction so they can just focus on the learning. It’s important to note that structure is not the same as rigidity–whereas the latter is inherently inflexible, structure acts as more of a container within which you can get creative about what you teach and how.

The consistency of transitioning from home-based learning to school-based hybrid instruction has especially helped our teachers mitigate the effects of learning loss. For example in the Lower School, the teachers post a daily agenda with all of the classes, including lunch, recess, and optional learning time–no matter whether you are at home or at school. This transparency, even for our youngest of learners, enables them to feel secure and helps them navigate their day.

Social-emotional Learning

Renowned neuroscientist and educator, Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, says, “Emotion is essential to learning,” and this is certainly our belief at McLean. When a child is anxious or lacking in self-esteem, or unable to express themselves in productive ways, it can interfere with their ability to make progress. There is no question that students’ social skills have suffered in this time of COVID-19, which makes social-emotional learning–self-awareness, communication, and more–an increasingly integral part of any program. In addition to working closely with our students to support them in these areas, the arts, physical education, and mindfulness are a few ways we’re continuing to support our students’ expression and growth and development, in and out of the classroom.

While there is understandably concern about learning loss, there are certainly some gains worth thinking about, too. Students have adopted new technologies and become proficient in programs that will enhance their learning from here on out. They’ve found new and innovative ways to connect with each other. They’ve had to work harder at listening, building important skills that will serve them well for life. They have tapped into their own resilience and gratitude for things they may have taken for granted pre-pandemic. Because they have had to work a little harder to get their needs met, their self-advocacy skills have gotten a little sharper.

And–as our Abilities Model® has demonstrated time and again–by focusing on “can” rather than “cannot,” you pave the way toward progress.

Dr. Mary Dickerson, Head of Lower School and David Roth, Head of Middle School