The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Student Learning and Social-Emotional Development

In this Inside SEL Research Brief, we explore emerging research on the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on K-12 student and share recommendations for accelerating learning recovery while prioritizing young people’s social-emotional development.


Topic Overview:

With the 2020-21 school year underway, district leaders, school leaders and educators are on the frontlines of a new, uncertain education world. The medical, social, economic, and educational toll from the COVID-19 public health crisis is unprecedented. The sudden shift to distance learning this past spring disrupted many aspects of typical home, school, work, and community relationships and routines for both adults and children. Concurrently, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery sparked a national movement to dismantle structural racism and redesign our education systems to work for every student.

With students likely returning to physical and virtual classrooms with heightened levels of stress, anxiety, trauma, and learning loss, the need for mitigation, healing, and recovery across all ages and roles in our school communities is paramount.

While research on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is limited, a combination of projections, existing empirical findings related to confinement and social distancing, and new studies can help us paint a picture of student (and educator) needs.

Learning Loss in K-12 — Key Insights:

Emerging research and projections highlight the potential impact of COVID-19 on learning loss. 

  • Some estimates predict that students are returning this fall with just 70% of typical learning gains in reading achievement and less than 50% of learning gains in mathematics relative to an average school year.
  • Findings from an Illuminate Education report on “COVID Slide” reflects similar expectations. According to the report, students will likely experience 2 to 4 months of learning loss as a result of COVID-19 disruptions. Projections created from analyzing prior research related to “summer slide” anticipate that schools will see significant loss in overall reading and math achievement, with a higher number of students needing remedial instruction as well as “strategic supports in order to achieve grade-level learning goals.” Their data indicates that learning loss in reading will be seen across all grades but especially exacerbated in Kindergarten. Similarly, math learning loss is expected to appear at higher rates across students in grades K-5. In many districts, educators are likely to find that higher percentages of students will return to school with moderate-to-high risk of academic difficulties. 
  • Survey results from a Tyton Partners report show that nearly 75% of teachers feel their student have fallen behind academically and/or social-emotionally.
  • New research from NWEA found that more than 4.4 million students in grades 3-8 who participated in NWEA’s MAP Growth test this fall performed about on par in reading, but 5 to 10 percentile points lower in math, compared to their peers in fall 2019. This means that a student who performed at the average in 2019 could have performed a year later at the level of someone ranked only at the 40th percentile in 2019. According to their dataset, students that transitioned to middle school seem to be struggling the most.
  • Students with disabilities are far more likely to have their education services disrupted when compared to general education students, with reports reflecting that 33% are “doing little to no” remote learning. 
  • Parents from low-income homes are 10 times more likely to report little or no remote learning in their home, while only 20% of high-income families are concerned about learning loss.  
  • new report from McKinsey illuminates how the pandemic has created learning setbacks for all students, but especially for students of color. According to assessment data from public sources and private companies, students of color could end up being 6 to 12 months behind where they would normally be in mathematics, compared to 4 to 8 months for their white peers. 
learning loss
Source: McKinsey & Co.

Social-Emotional Conditions in Student Populations — Key Insights:

In addition to the anticipated increase in students who need additional academic support this school year, COVID-19 school disruptions will likely have negative effects on students’ social and emotional development as well. 

  • One study of 2,300 children who experienced home confinement during the pandemic in the Hubei province of China found that 23% reported symptoms of depression and 19% reported high levels of anxiety. 
  • In the United States, we know that up to 1 in 5 children experience a mental health challenge such as anxiety, depression, or a behavioral problem in a given year.
  • Under normal circumstances, we know that school closures, social distancing and confinement increase anxiety and stress among children, and reduce access to vital family and care services.
  • According to findings released this summer from a national survey of 3,300 high school students, almost 33% reported feelings of depression and anxiety since the closing of school buildings. Over 25% reported a lack of connection to peers, teachers, and school communities.
  • Survey results from a Tyton Partners report show that parents are reporting staggering losses, with over half reporting that their child has fallen behind academically and/or social-emotionally since March.
  • Many students—especially those with or at risk for disabilities—are expected to need additional social, emotional, and behavioral supports due to disruptions in (and unequal access to) instruction. Compound this with the fact that federal and district regulations for teachers, staff, and/or students to wear masks in school buildings and maintain safe distancing has the potential to make connections between students and teachers even more challenging.
  • In late April and early May, nearly 1 in 3 young people — 30 percent — said they were more often feeling unhappy or depressed, according to America’s Promise Alliance, which surveyed a nationally representative 3,300 people (ages 13-19).
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new research last month showing that children’s emergency department visits related to mental health have increased the last few months compared to 2019.
  • A lower volume of social interactions caused by school closures and social distancing may result in diminished social and emotional skills for some students—in particular, those in early childhood, which is a critical period for building these skills.
  • Negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are exacerbated for children living in poverty, homeless children, children in detention, children with disabilities, and Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).

Translating Research to Practice:

Decades of research demonstrate the effectiveness of social and emotional learning for supporting students’ academic and long-term success as well as greater student engagement, social-emotional health, and academic achievement (in addition to improving the well-being of educators, family members, and school leaders).

To mitigate learning loss and build resilience in all members of our school communities, it will be crucially important for district and school leaders to focus on establishing strong relationships, revamping universal and targeted interventions, fostering a sense of belonging, elevating families as true partners, and implementing intentional, predictable and consistent rituals that can help foster a responsive and supportive learning climate.

The latest research indicates that supporting learning recovery will require district leaders, school leaders and educators to:

  • Use assessment to guide curriculum and instruction. In addition to administering academic assessments and tracking student progress across core content areas, districts need to understand how students, caregivers, and teachers are functioning socially and emotionally in these unique times. When it comes to historically marginalized and low-income students specifically, teams of educators need to regularly reflect on what the data is suggesting about these students’ needs and what can be done to support them holistically.
  • Pair a strong instructional program with access to grade-level content to students. One guiding principle is to keep assessment close to instruction and, whenever possible, to use assessments to provide feedback for students and for families.
  • Identify specific strategies and activities that integrate social-emotional skills within academic content. Scaling the integration of SEL into academics requires administrators and educators to elevate student voice, deliver engaging and interactive learning experiences (especially online), foster academic mindsets, and embed social-emotional learning standards or objectives within reading, writing, social studies, and mathematics curriculum.

In addition, when it comes to supporting the whole child, educators can:

  • Implement a comprehensive system of supports to ensure that academic, behavioral, social, and emotional supports are made available to every student. Introducing a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) is one vehicle through which districts can address student needs in hybrid, remote, or in-person learning environments. Due to the vast need in the 2020-21 school year, remediating loss due to COVID-19 using solely Tier 2 interventions will be challenging. Instead, districts and schools need to expand and improve Tier 1 instruction to help all students catch-up academically as well as heal socially and emotionally.
  • Embed SEL within existing systems of support to create safe, supportive and equitable learning environments. Our collective increased awareness of systems that perpetuate racism and unconscious bias in schools allows us to take steps to dismantle and rebuild structures that have historically marginalized students. Educators must reflect on and act against systems of bias while taking an assets-based approach to change. District and school leaders can also actively work to create policies and programs that emphasize culturally responsive pedagogy to reflect every student.
  • Create safe and predictable structures and rituals that foster health, belonging, emotional safety, relationships, and among students, teachers and staff. Reliable routines and activities create predictability so students know what to expect. When implemented effectively, they help reduce stress and build a sense of belonging (versus limit student choice). These routines should help ensure the explicit teaching of social and emotional skills at every grade-level to embed SEL into the fabric of each classroom, hallway, and school building.
  • Regularly check-in with student, staff, and families to understand and address their needs in real-time. Given the volatile and uncertain nature of our current context, it’s important to regularly take pulse of how members of the school community are coping with various stressors. Leverage in-person and virtual systems to routinely ask stakeholders how they are feeling and who they need support from.
  • Invest in understand and supporting the social-emotional needs of caring adults in your district. Now more than ever, supporting adult SEL must be a priority. Districts must commit to understanding and supporting the social-emotional needs of the adults responsible for fostering students’ learning and development. Similarly, nurturing a work environment in which staff feel supported, cared for, and empowered is key to unlocking their ability to model SEL skills for students, collaborate effectively with peers, and build their own social and emotional skills.
  • Redesign and strengthen family-school partnerships as a key aspect of SEL efforts. A strong family engagement plan consists of thoughtful, culturally-responsive, and equity-centered strategies that are grounded in feedback from both caregivers and educators. Redesigning school-family partnerships in a pandemic requires district and school leaders to examine biases that exist in terms of how educators and staff think about families. What assumptions are we (as a leadership team) making about caregivers? Are we viewing families through a deficit-mindset or an asset-based lens? Do we believe families are the problem, or recognize them as experts on their children and creating a culture that values their ideas, feedback and strengths? Furthermore, districts can do more to advocate for solutions to address the unique challenges facing families in many communities (especially low income communities) throughout this period of national upheaval.

For more social-emotional learning tools, research, and guidance for navigating the pandemic, visit our COVID-19 Resources database.

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