On February 25, 2020, less than a month after the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in the U.S., an official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gave parents a warning that carried the weight of prophecy. “You should ask your children’s schools about their plans for school dismissals or closures,” said Nancy Messonnier. “Ask about plans for teleschool.”

By the 11th of March, school closures affected more than 1 million students. By the 25th of that month, every public school building in the nation was closed. Remote learning flooded in to fill the void that spring, and it’s been with us ever since. But with wave after wave of COVID variants exacerbating a pre-existing teacher shortage, the return to permanent in-person schooling has yet to move beyond patchy and tenuous.

“You should ask your children’s schools about their plans for school dismissals or closures. Ask about plans for teleschool.” – Nancy Messonnier, CDC Director, February 25, 2020

The era of COVID-19—ongoing as we publish—created unprecedented challenges for educators. As schools shut down and/or moved online, many students suffered (and continue to suffer if their schools remain online) both socially and emotionally. But perhaps the greatest threat of pandemic disruption is to learning itself.

Today, we’ll view the crisis through two documented phenomena: unfinished learning and learning loss. Once we understand the problem, we can work toward solutions—some of which we’ll address below.

The Costs of Unfinished Learning and Learning Loss

Learning loss wasn’t born with COVID-19; it’s associated with any long-term break in education, including summer vacation. But pandemic school closures seem to have distributed the problem more widely. When students take time away from learning, they may forget the skills and concepts they need to advance. That’s what we mean by learning loss, and it leads to real deficits—which in turn affect core student outcomes.

According to Unicef, pandemic-related learning loss could cost today’s students almost $17 trillion in lifetime earnings worldwide.

Then there’s the threat of unfinished learning. The term refers to concepts that students haven’t quite absorbed, though they’ll need them for later learning. While education isn’t always linear, it’s certainly additive. You must understand arithmetic before you can learn algebra, which you need to grasp calculus, which you need for advanced physics, and so on.

When a global pandemic interrupts a class, students don’t learn what they need to progress—but they progress nonetheless, setting them up for frustration. Frustration leads to absenteeism.

So does the pandemic, with kids at home, parents maybe at work, and remote-school attendance predicated on access to a stable internet connection—a luxury that somewhere between 10 million and 16 million students lacked prior to the nation’s COVID response. Up to 4 million of these students gained home internet access during the lockdowns, but the digital divide remains significant, limiting opportunity for low-income families in particular. Absenteeism—voluntary or not—is correlated with the likelihood of quitting school altogether.

McKinsey estimates that up to 1.2 million middle- and high-school students are at a greater risk of dropping out of school due to pandemic-related chronic absenteeism.

Clearly, education is facing serious challenges. So, what can we do to confront them head-on?

Addressing COVID’s Lingering Effects on Education

As we publish, we’re still reeling from the changes wrought by a global pandemic. Two years isn’t much time to repurpose a nation’s education system. Our teachers are still learning, and no one has all the answers.

That said, here are a few hopeful trends. Maybe they’ll give you some ideas on how to help students recover from the unfinished learning that’s already occurred—and minimize ongoing incidents of learning loss.

1. There is a greater commitment to inclusive education.

Pandemic-related unfinished learning differs from one student to the next; the same with learning loss. That’s not surprising, given that all students are individuals, each with their own strengths and needs. So digging ourselves out of the educational hole the pandemic put us in will require, first and foremost, effective teaching for all. The theory of inclusive education can help.

Inclusive education provides equal access for learners with disabilities. To be clear, the approach seeks to remove learning barriers for all students—but it began as an accessibility philosophy, evolving out of the educational practice called mainstreaming. A mainstreamed classroom includes students with and without disabilities, but generally expects them to all learn the same way. Inclusive education maintains classroom diversity, but offers multiple means of engaging with the course material, striving to meet each individual learner’s needs.

Inclusive Education: A Simplified Example

Picture a class asked to read a few pages from a textbook at their desks.

  • A student with a learning disability uses a reading ruler to focus on one sentence at a time.Another student reads unassisted.One learner reads a Braille version of the textbook.An English-as-a-second-language (ESL) student wears headphones, listening to the words while following along on the page.

It’s the same text, but assistive technology tools make it accessible to students with different needs. That’s inclusive education.

With the recent pivot to remote learning, the tools that help to achieve individualized learning had to evolve. They had to go fully digital. That brings us to the issue of digital inclusion, an outgrowth of inclusive education writ large—and a key tool in the effort to combat learning loss and unfinished learning amid pandemic shutdowns.

2. There’s been a particular focus on digital inclusion.

The goal of digital inclusion is equal access to information shared through communication technologies. We can no longer take in-person classes for granted; any moment, the pandemic may throw us another curveball, forcing us to hybrid or fully remote learning again. Now’s the time to make sure our online learning environments work for everyone.

What does digital inclusion look like in the context of remote learning?

In addition to the five elements of a digitally inclusive educational environment (internet access, connected devices, training, support, and accessible online applications/content), digital inclusion requires a multi-modal approach to teaching: presenting material in a variety of ways. Digital tools that achieve this goal include:

  • Text-to-speech tools, such as web readers. A web reader is a digital tool that speaks written content aloud, extending educational access to learners with blindness, visual impairments, learning disabilities, low literacy, developing language fluency, or simply the sort of mind that retains information through ears more than eyes.
  • Digital page masks. Many students struggle with focus while reading. They may have learning differences, attention disorders, or screen fatigue. A digital page mask is a tool that shades the screen outside of an adjustable box to remove distractions.
  • Text enlargement features. With about 13% of U.S. adults reporting “trouble” seeing, the ability to size text for optimal visibility is crucial for accessibility. Resizing digital text can also help with focus and comprehension for many learners, with or without vision impairments.
  • Instant-access dictionaries and translation tools. Opening a new browser tab may be yet another barrier. Comprehensive dictionaries and translation tools expand access for learners, whether they’re encountering new vocabulary, learning a second language, or both.
  • Plain-text views. Online learning environments are full of distractions. A plain-text feature removes pictures and design elements so students can focus on the material, distraction-free.

Ideally, educators will make all these features available through a simple integration with their learning management system (LMS). ReadSpeaker for LMS provides all these tools and more—integrates seamlessly with all major learning management systems to expand digital inclusion in online learning environments. That can help limit unfinished learning for remote schooling, whether it’s a dedicated online class or a pandemic-driven shift to digital.

3. Coursework is being designed specifically for online channels.

In the early days of the pandemic, we called our suddenly-online classrooms “emergency remote learning.” Results were what you’d expect during an emergency: Students disengaged. But online learning can be effective, particularly at the post-secondary level. We just have to construct learning activities to match the medium. The time has come to move away from “emergency learning” and toward the purposeful remote classroom. An educational framework called Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a great starting point.

Universal Design for Learning is an inclusion-first approach to instruction. Like inclusive education (the two ideas overlap significantly), UDL emphasizes flexibility to reach learners as individuals, meeting their needs and interests where they are. To meet this goal, UDL recommends coursework design that includes:

  • Multiple representations of the course material. Whatever the students are there to learn, teachers should provide it through varying media: text, speech, image, activity, and more.
  • Multiple options for student expression. One student may prefer to demonstrate knowledge by speaking; another may need to write a response; a third may work best by drawing. With UDL, students have different ways to show what they’ve learned.
  • Multiple ways to engage with lesson content. Students only learn when they’re engaged—but they all have different interests and abilities. The UDL framework encourages variety in learning activities, engaging each student on an individual level.

The key to UDL is access, and because students are all different, that requires variety. This variety is available online, as demonstrated by TTS and the focus tools discussed above. We just have to be intentional about incorporating this variety into remote learning environments.

To learn more about how ReadSpeaker’s tools help in this effort, download our white paper, Designing for Difference—or view our free webinar, Bridging the Gap with Assistive Technology: How to Reduce Learning Loss in Online Learning.

We don’t know how the shared history of school and COVID will develop. We don’t know what the pandemic will do next. But we know more than ever about how to keep it from leading to learning loss and unfinished learning.

ReadSpeaker can help you respond positively to the challenges imposed by COVID-19 in education; do not hesitate to contact us!