Learning Loss During COVID-19 | United Way of Metropolitan Dallas

Learning Loss During COVID-19

During the pandemic, many North Texas students are struggling to keep up—but we can work together as a community to help them stay on track.

COVID-19 has disrupted school for students of all ages for a full year. Only now are experts beginning to understand the scope of the learning loss experienced by children in Texas and across the country. Sadly, young students and students of color are especially vulnerable to learning loss and its effects.

At United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, education is one of our key focus areas, in addition to income and health, because we know that a strong start in school sets kids up for success throughout the rest of their lives. It’s why one of our Aspire United 2030 goals is to increase by 50 percent the number of third graders reading on grade level by 2030.

We’ve seen that when kids fall behind in school, they get frustrated and check out before they drop out. As we continue to track the educational fallout from COVID-19, let’s take a look at how the pandemic has affected learning in our community, as well as some of our programs that are aimed at improving education and preventing learning loss.

Although it can be difficult to measure learning loss, studies have found that students are struggling during the pandemic in several ways:

Early school disruptions led to loss of key knowledge
Once school was disrupted last year, students and their teachers had trouble maintaining the typical pace of learning. On average, U.S. students lost the equivalent of three months of learning in math and six weeks of learning in reading.

By the fall of 2020, many students had already lost key knowledge from the previous year. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) conducted optional assessments to kick off the school year, finding significant learning loss in three key areas:

  • Only 29 percent of Texas third graders achieved “meets grade level” in reading, compared to 44 percent in 2019.
  • Just 15 percent of Texas fourth graders achieved “meets grade level” in math, down from 46 percent in 2019.
  • Only 12 percent of Texas fifth graders achieved “meets grade level” in science, compared to 48 percent in 2019.

Safety concerns have hampered early education
Meanwhile, many young Texans aren’t benefiting from early education during the pandemic. In the first half of the 2020-2021 school year:

  • Pre-kindergarten enrollment in Texas public schools dropped 22 percent.
  • The number of 3-year-olds in early education programs also fell 22 percent.
  • Enrollment in kindergarten and fifth grade declined 6 percent.

In North Texas, some pre-K programs started the school year with nearly 40 percent fewer students compared to previous years. This trend is likely due to many parents’ health concerns, especially in low-income communities and communities of color, which have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Some students face additional challenges
Research shows that students of color and those in high-poverty communities are, on average, experiencing greater learning loss than their peers, further widening the opportunity gap in education.

There are several factors at play here, as Abigail Sharp, vice president of early childhood initiatives at United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, explains:

“Students of color have been affected disproportionately by learning loss as they are more likely to live in internet desserts, as well as have parents and caregivers who needed to continue to work during the pandemic as essential workers,” she said.

When schools closed to in-person instruction last spring, students who didn’t have access to a stable internet connection or the proper devices for virtual learning lost weeks, if not months, of instruction prior to the end of the school year. Many school districts in North Texas struggled to equip students with the things necessary to engage in learning, such as laptops and hot spots—but by then, thousands of children had experienced significant learning loss.

Meanwhile, remote learning often requires heavy involvement from parents and caretakers. That level of support was not available for all families due to a variety of factors that include language barriers, work demands, technology literacy skills and more.


Sharp says that missing out on quality early education can have a domino-like effect on children’s learning.

“When children do not attend preschool, they are significantly less likely to arrive to kindergarten ready to learn,” she explains. “When children are not kindergarten ready, they are significantly less likely to test on grade level in third grade and subsequently less likely to graduate high school. Preschool is the gateway to early learning and teaches children not only the foundational academics for kindergarten but also the necessary social and emotional skills they will need throughout early academics.”

Older students can also experience long-term negative effects from just a few months of learning loss. As we’ve seen above, it can easily widen the gap between the general student population and students who don’t have the resources or support that their peers have. And it can put any child behind on their path to graduate high school and achieve success in college, career or the military.


To prevent learning loss and minimize its impact, Sharp says, we need to purposefully help students get back on track, with a focus on young children and our underserved communities.

“In order to combat learning loss, new programming must be developed to help kids catch up,” she says. “Dallas must address the digital divide among students—and particularly with students of color—ensuring that all students are equipped with stable internet, necessary devices and programming that is designed to get them back up to speed in reading and mathematics.”

At United Way, we create, lead and invest in a variety of programs that give kids a strong start, quality out-of-school time and strong pathways throughout high school.

Several of our programs focus specifically on early education and reading, since high-quality childcare and early literacy skills help to set kids up for success at a young age. These include:

  • First Five: As part of the Southern Dallas Thrives initiative, this program delivers high-quality childcare to communities in southern Dallas. First Five has a positive ripple effect in the community: By providing educationally enriched care by trained educators, we can give mothers a chance to enter the workforce and expand the available talent pool to allow employers to fill open positions.
  • 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.
  • Vooks: We’ve partnered with Atmos Energy and Vooks, the leading streaming service for children’s books, to provide access to a free, one-year subscription for children ages 3-6 and early education teachers.

In addition, we partner with and support a variety of local early childhood education organizations that have continued doing incredible work during the pandemic. These include:

  • Reading Partners: helps struggling readers from low-income communities by recruiting and training dedicated community volunteers to provide one-on-one instruction. During COVID-19, Reading Partners rolled out RPCx, an online platform that allows them to meet the needs of DISD students by virtually pairing them with tutors. As of February, the North Texas Reading Partners had enrolled more than 480 children—more than any other Reading Partners in the country.
  • Mi Escuelita Preschool: an early childhood education program that serves low income and at-risk children ages 2 ½ to 5 years old, many of whom don’t speak English as their primary language. The goal is to ensure students begin kindergarten capable of achieving academic success in an English-speaking school system. During the early days of the pandemic, Mi Escualita had to rush to transition its curriculum to an online format and has since been using digital tools such as Class Dojo, Remind App, Google Hangouts and Zoom to interact with parents and scholars to keep students on track. However, at this point, the school says they don’t yet know the full impact of the pandemic-related closures on their students.
  • Readers 2 Leaders: Team Read, a high-quality, high-dosage tutoring program, uses individualized and small group instruction to help K-5 students reach grade level in reading. Readers 2 Leaders has been working hard since last spring to keep students engaged in virtual and socially distant learning, using materials and tools designed specifically for use in virtual settings and with more time for social and emotional learning. Lisa Marshall from Team Read says, “The small group setting and individualized attention we partner with schools to provide is needed now more than ever.”


The effects of COVID-19 on our community’s young people will likely be felt for years to come. But you can be a part of the change that you want to see in North Texas by helping United Way combat learning loss right here at home:

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United Way of Metropolitan Dallas is a community-based social change organization that puts opportunity in the hands of all North Texans. Working with our determined supporters, we lead the charge to improve education, income and health—the building blocks of opportunity. We invite all change-seekers in our community to Live United to achieve lasting results right here at home.

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This article was published on: Apr 9, 2021