Students Grapple With Pandemic Learning Loss

Adriana Hazlett, Contributing Writer

This article originally appeared in Torrey Pines High School’s ‘The Falconer’ in December 2021. It has been lightly edited for republication.

A 2021 survey conducted by the Horace Mann Educators Corporation of 1,000 K-12 educators across the U.S. found 97 percent of educators reported a loss of learning in their students over the past pandemic year when compared to prior ones. “Persistent achievement disparities across income levels and between white students and students of Black and Hispanic heritage” could cause disproportionate learning loss for those students, according to McKinsey & Co., a consulting firm for corporations, governments and other organizations. 

McKinsey also found the percentage of middle and high school students failing a class increased by 60 percent during the pandemic in a Salt Lake City high school district. And, since spring 2020, there has been a 50 percent increase in failing grades in some districts across the Bay Area, according to Inside Higher Ed, a news website for higher education.

Torrey Pines High School students have noticed lagging behind on what they feel they should know.

“I think it was very difficult for a lot of teachers to use their usual schedules during the pandemic, so we didn’t end up covering all of the curriculum we were supposed to,” Chloe Tahmasebi (Class of 2024) said. “So this year, especially in math, as soon as I finally understand something, I’m on to the next thing; it’s like you’re always running to the finish line.”

On average, students in grades one through six were five months behind on curriculum content in math. However, in majority-Black schools, students were six months behind in math, and in schools where the average household income was less than $25,000, students were seven months behind, according to the McKinsey report. Thus, some worry that online learning has strengthened pre-existing educational inequalities.

In addition to documented decreases in test scores and grades, students and teachers have noted that many abilities necessary for learning, such as a strong attention span, memory and critical thinking skills, have been negatively impacted by online learning. 

Angela Wilden, who teaches Honors Chemistry and AP Chemistry and has been at Torrey Pines since 2009, has made note of how students seem to be struggling more to solve problems and retain information than they did in the past before distance learning.

“The ability to learn is the same. I don’t think they lost aptitude,” Wilden said. “I think the retention, the ability to retain [material] longer and to connect ideas from one unit to the next, has been affected by distance learning … There’s always going to be kids who struggle in every class, but I feel like this year maybe there’s a few more.”

Colten Farrell (Class of 2023) recognized that he has become less likely to participate in class. 

“After the pandemic, I kind of stopped talking, and I feel like in class, I stopped volunteering,” Farrell said. “I feel like that carried over into this year.”

With all of these effects — the loss of learning, the decrease in critical thinking abilities, and attention span, there also come the social and emotional disturbances brought on by distance learning. The lack of interaction with peers, teachers and coaches during the months of virtual learning has caused loneliness, insecurity and social isolation, causing students to be in greater need of social-emotional support.

By Adriana Hazlett, Torrey Pines High School | Class of 2024