New Data Show COVID School Closures Contributed to Largest Learning Loss in Decades

Teachers unions and progressive politicians pushed for school closures during the pandemic. New assessments of 9-year-olds suggest a devastating learning loss.


Last week, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released new data showing a dramatic decline in test scores among American 9-year-olds since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The data indicate a devastating learning loss among American schoolchildren, marking the largest decline in reading scores since 1990, and the first ever recorded drop in mathematics scores.

These results come from a special administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term trend (LTT) assessments, which measured reading and mathematics outcomes among 9-year-olds. Since its inception, the LTT has tracked a steady rise in educational performance among 9-year-olds. However, from 2020 to 2022, the LTT revealed a steep drop in 9-year-old students' performance. Reading scores dropped by five points over the two-year period, while mathematics scores dropped by seven points. In all, the decline in test scores represents the reversal of around two decades of improvement in math and reading scores.

"These results are sobering," Peggy G. Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, told The Washington Post. "It's clear that covid-19 shocked American education and stunted the academic growth of this age group."

The decline was even more pronounced among already struggling students. For example, math scores declined by only three points among the 90th percentile of performers. Among the 10th percentile, the drop was four times higher, at 12 points. In total, the bottom quartile of test-takers saw their math scores drop by 11 points from 2020 to 2022. Among students eligible for the National School Lunch Program, reading scores declined at twice the rate of noneligible students.

As these new data show, nearly two years of pandemic schooling has been a complete disaster for American schoolchildren. However, it didn't have to be this way.

While outlets like The New York Times blamed "the pandemic" for this devastating learning loss, "the pandemic" didn't force schools to close. Rather, the efforts of progressive politicians and teachers unions kept American children out of schools for a year or more, long after evidence suggested COVID-19 posed little danger to children.

District of Columbia Public Schools, for example, faced periodic COVID-19 closures as late as December 2021, nearly two years after the start of the pandemic. Now, Mayor Muriel Bowser is enforcing a "no shots, no school" program, requiring all students over the age of 12 to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend any of the city's private or public schools. The program stands to exclude from education the 47 percent of black D.C. 12- to 15-year-olds who are currently unvaccinated. It will go into effect in January 2023.

While some teachers union members shirked the idea of learning loss and refused to return to classrooms in defiance of their own school districts, others engaged in needless fearmongering in order to justify continued school closures. "They are compromising the one enduring public health missive that we've gotten from the beginning of this pandemic in order to squeeze more kids into schools," American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told The Washington Post after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shifted the recommended social distance between K-12 students form six feet to three. "I think that is problematic until we have real evidence in these harder-to-open places about what the effect is."

However, it simply isn't true that complicated reopening procedures were required to keep American schoolchildren safe during the pandemic. Nor were lengthy closures. Thankfully, COVID-19 generally spares the young. Sweden kept primary schools open for the entire pandemic, yet according to the Swedish Public Health Agency, COVID-19 cases among Swedish children were no higher than those in neighboring Finland, where schools temporarily closed. According to a 2022 study published in the International Journal of Educational Research, Swedish elementary schoolers suffered no learning losses during the course of the pandemic.

"This was a man-made disaster, not an inevitable consequence of COVID," Michael Hartney, an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said in a statement to The Hechinger Report. "Those who have been fighting to reopen schools since Fall 2020 knew that school was essential, that children faced the lowest risk of severe illness, and that children faced the most severe consequences of the prolonged shutdown. The children who have thrived are those who had the opportunity to attend school in person."

The devastating learning loss suffered by American children over the past two years was not inevitable. It was the result of choices made by COVID-panicked teachers unions and progressive politicians who failed to carefully consider the educational damage at stake.