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Tackling “Learning Loss” in Baltimore City Public Schools

By Michael Donaldson, PhD

Over the past year and a half, issues within the educational realm have been brought to the forefront as educators and society at large dealt with a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic. As many teachers were concerned for the safety of their families, their students, and themselves, the idea of “learning loss” penetrated and permeated through American consciousness.

Some students in Baltimore City, especially those deemed most at-risk, were able to attend in-person classes during the 2020-2021 school year. Many students, however, did not set foot inside a school building at all. To further exacerbate the situation, many students did not log on to virtual class regularly and missed the material they were entitled to. 

Unfortunately, no matter what teachers attempted, they found themselves limited in what they could do to assist children. It was impossible for many teachers to corral students into their classes or cajole them into working hard like they often do when in person. For these reasons, many teachers and other educational leaders have agreed that a lack of student attendance, participation, and submission of work characterized the virtual/hybrid learning approach that dominated last year. 

It was under this inauspicious and turbulent time that teachers and their push against the physical reopening of schools caught the ire of politicians and educational decision-makers. Locally, in early 2021, teachers fought against a rushed reopening, urging for a plan that placed an emphasis on adequate safety policies and protocols, most of which were diminished by the start of the current school year. 

City Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises, who fervently pushed for a quick reopening, adamantly argued that learning loss had proven “more dramatic and widespread than we had originally feared.” These comments were made before any substantial data could be generated to give validity to her claim. 

One could argue, though, that while the pandemic did put a spotlight on issues of missed learning opportunities, this is something that politicians, educational decision makers, and others – including Dr. Santelises – should have discussed long before the pandemic. 

While away from schools last year, some students missed out on an opportunity for learning due to factors that could be related to equity. There may have been a lack of technology, a lack of familial support, or outside environmental factors which hindered access to education. We also cannot ignore the possibility of a lack of intrinsic motivation. While these issues manifested themselves in ways typically not seen (evidenced by the record number of students who would have earned a failing grade for the school year), these issues have been concerns for years, yet teachers have shouldered the burden to mask the damning reality. 

One can assume that the “learning loss” that is being discussed is grossly experienced by those students that, for whatever reason, did not take advantage of the opportunities to learn in the virtual space. Though it will take some time to realize just how much “learning loss” occurred with these students, it would also be wise for individuals to acknowledge the growth made by the students who did attend and participate in all their virtual classes, for they undoubtedly learned a great deal. 

Although it is justifiable to consider what learning loss is and what the precursors to such phenomena are, it is also important to note what it is not.2 In an informal roundtable discussion with several Baltimore City teachers this summer (including veteran teachers Katelyn D., Shanice K., Diana P. and Joel W.), one theme emerged when talking about “learning loss.” It is obvious that some students missed instruction focused on academic topics that they would have received inside of a classroom; however, many students learned things that are not quantifiable. 

Shanice K., for one, commented that many children learned how to be self-sufficient, persevering in the face of enormous obstacles and adversity. Diane P. argued that many students became much more aware of the importance – and lifesaving qualities – of proper hygiene. Others agreed that students with access to technology learned many critical skills that will do them good as they continue experiencing the 21st century. 

As we head into a new school year, full of hope and vigor (as well as caution and concern), we need to acknowledge what students went through, how some students missed opportunities for academic advancement, and how some overcame daunting obstacles. We need to do what is necessary to fill in the gaps (academically and socially) and limit the negative effects of a year away from the classroom. We must also, however, keep in mind the issues of inequity and lower social standards that have further impacted our students if we are to change the narrative around the impact of COVID-19 on the education of students in Baltimore. 

Although one can argue that something which is truly learned cannot be unlearned, it is important for educators – as well as those charged with making educational decisions – to acknowledge that “learning loss” may have taken place, by looking extensively into what it is and how it can impact students for years to come. It cannot be examined, however, from a superficial level that merely provides sound bites used to push an agenda that does not fully address the real problems at hand.