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Education’s ‘Long COVID’ Continues as Student Test Scores Backslide

As North Texas students get ready to head back to class, let’s make sure every child is ready to succeed this school year.

July 31, 2023

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools across the country to shut down, students lost months’ worth of learning. Over the past three years, parents, teachers and community organizations have united to ensure kids get back on track as quickly as possible, working overtime with students and launching new initiatives to close the learning loss gap.

Unfortunately, new research indicates that students across the country are still struggling to get back to pre-pandemic learning levels.

According to NWEA, a research organization that deploys student assessment tests across the U.S., achievement gains during the 2022-23 school year fell short of pre-pandemic trends in nearly all grades. The research indicates that learning loss created by the pandemic still has not been resolved; in fact, learning gaps may still be widening for many students.

This is a critical situation that impacts our entire community—and requires a community-wide response. At United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, supporting local students is one of our top priorities as we work to improve access to education, income and health. As kids and their families strive to catch up from COVID-era learning loss, we unite the North Texas community to ensure students have what they need to succeed.

Read on to learn more about the most recent learning loss research, how United Way supports students and teachers in North Texas, and how you can be part of our movement to create opportunity in education.

Students Are Struggling in Reading and Math

This spring, NWEA assessed the reading and math skills of about 3.5 million public school students in third through eighth grade. Students in nearly every grade showed slower-than-average growth in reading and math skills, when compared with pre-pandemic learning growth.

Most students are so far behind that they need the equivalent of an extra four months of instruction in reading and 4.5 months in math to catch up to the typical pre-pandemic student.

Older students are generally the furthest behind, with sixth graders’ reading achievement sliding 19% compared to the years before COVID-19 and fifth graders’ math skills falling by 15%.

Black and Hispanic students fared worse than other ethnicities and would require another month or more of supplemental learning to catch up. “This implies that marginalized students, who have been hardest hit by the pandemic, did not experience any additional catch-up, despite being the intended primary focus of academic recovery efforts,” the researchers wrote. “All students face a lengthy road to recovery, and our estimates indicate that road will be longer still for historically marginalized students.”

The Enduring Legacy of COVID

These statistics reflect the severity and disruption of the COVID-19 crisis. It’s not surprising that, three years later, students are still feeling the effects.

As Susan Hoff, chief strategy and impact officer at United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, explains, “This has been an incredibly disruptive couple of years, with the pandemic and so many other things that have affected all of our lives, but most particularly the lives of students. With the disruption in learning—our brains can only do so much when we’re stressed.”

Teachers, parents and community organizations have done a commendable job supporting children through the height of the pandemic, and an influx of federal funding helped to prevent even greater learning loss. However, NWEA’s research indicates that this work isn’t over and that local students need our entire community’s support now more than ever.

Education Takes a Village

At United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, we’ve led a community-wide movement to improve access to education—as well as income and health—for nearly 100 years. We recognize that education is one of the building blocks of opportunity, affecting everything from how much a student will go on to earn in their career to the quality of health insurance their family will one day enjoy.

When COVID-19 hit North Texas, we quickly saw the importance of supporting students throughout the pandemic and beyond. We ramped up existing programs that promote early literacy and launched new initiatives aimed at reengaging students with school. Through this and other work, we gave the entire North Texas community an opportunity to lift up students who were at risk of falling behind.

Examples of these efforts include:

School supply drives

As back-to-school time approaches, each year we host a series of Stock the School drives, giving the North Texas community an opportunity to show their support for local students and teachers and make sure they have everything they need for a successful school year. Each year, we work with hundreds of donors and volunteers to provide thousands of school supplies to local educators and students.

This type of community support is especially important this year, as inflation has increased the price of nearly everything and the average family now spends $660 on school supplies. These drives also prevent educators from having to use their own funds to teach in an effective, engaging way.

Early literacy programs

Initiatives like Once Upon a Month encourage young North Texans to fall in love with reading, which supports kindergarten readiness and ongoing success in school. A partnership with Ferst Readers and The Boone Family Foundation, Once Upon a Month provides children ages 0-5 with one free children’s book every month for a year, along with parent guides in both English and Spanish. The resulting interactions stimulate curiosity, language development and the learning skills needed for kids to succeed in both school and life. In our last fiscal year alone, nearly 9,400 North Texas children enrolled in the program and more than 108,000 books were mailed out.

STEAM programs

Throughout the year, we organize initiatives that promote learning in science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM). One example is Heal Play Learn, which is designed to encourage students’ social and emotional wellness, physical activity and engagement with STEAM. Following 2021, the first year of Heal Play Learn programming, participating students showed improved retention rates in DeSoto schools, as well as significantly higher projected STAAR test scores.

These and other United Way programs actively combat COVID-19 learning loss by ensuring students and teachers have the resources necessary to thrive, re-engaging kids with learning, sparking an interest in subjects like reading and math, and setting students up for success at every age.

Together, We Can Ensure Local Students Thrive

Interested in being part of the change? This summer we invite you to invest in local students by supporting programs like Stock the School to ensure every child has what they need to thrive.

Here are three donation options that enable change-seekers like you to make a meaningful impact right here in North Texas:

  • Make a one-time donation: With a gift of any amount, you can make a holistic investment in our community and create opportunity and access for your fellow North Texans. Simply visit our donation page, click the “one time” tab and select your gift amount.
  • Set up a recurring donation: Become a monthly donor and create lasting change on an ongoing basis. Your investment will be there for North Texans continually over time, providing reliable financial support for our programs and partnerships that improve education, income and health for our neighbors. To get started, visit our donation page, select the “monthly” tab and choose your donation amount.
  • Join a United Way Giving Society: These inspiring and impactful groups are a great way to invest in North Texas while connecting with fellow change-seekers and engaging directly with the community impact work that is transforming our community for the better. Learn more about our Giving Societies.

Invest in Local Children

An investment in United Way ensures local children have access to nutritious meals, early education materials, health resources and more so they can thrive all summer long.