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Editorial: School closures failed students. Here's proof

Most Americans have felt the negative effects of COVID, from the virus itself to measures the government put in place to combat it. While the impact is wide, there’s a strong case to be made that it’s children who have suffered the most. 

A report released this month from Michigan State University highlights just how much students statewide bore the brunt of pandemic-related school closures. About a quarter of students showed zero academic growth from fall 2020 to fall 2021. 


The detrimental consequences of shutting classrooms to in-person learning are clear, and state education officials and school administrators have a duty to take these findings seriously.

Any future decisions to close schools must take these facts into account. And the data must inform efforts to catch students up.

More: Editorial: New test scores fail to show full COVID impact

Remote learning doesn’t work for too many students — especially those who are often already furthest behind, including minority and economically disadvantaged children. 

Ironically (and tragically), it was these students in districts such as Detroit and Flint who were subjected to the longest school closures. Those schools were closed as recently as January — for the entire month. 

More: Editorial: No more excuses. Open schools now

“Across all upper elementary and middle school grade levels, students learning in-person consistently outperformed students learning remotely on the MAP Growth assessments, and these gaps grew substantially from fall 2020 to spring 2021,” the report states. 

The latest report from MSU’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative builds on other studies it's done throughout the pandemic, tracking which districts stayed open or didn’t, and how students fared as a result. 

The study looked at benchmark assessments from the fall of 2021, and compared them with tests from fall 2020. Benchmark exams are given to students several times throughout a school year to track progress and academic growth. 

In 2020, ahead of the 2020-21 school year, the Legislature required students take these tests twice a year.

The fact that nearly a fourth of students did not show any growth is more than double the typical number, says Katharine Strunk, director of EPIC and one of the report’s authors. And 20% more students failed to meet growth targets than in a normal year. 

Not surprisingly, students learning remotely fared the worst, as previous studies had also concluded, widening achievement gaps among students.  

“These are clearly big problems,” Strunk says.

And they aren’t going to go away overnight. It will take much more than a business-as-usual approach, Strunk says. The best way to improve learning is more time with a qualified teacher, so schools will need to figure out how to make that happen, whether extending the school day or year or offering tutoring to more students. 

Many of the districts that kept students out of class for a year-and-a-half (or more) have the largest share of $6 billion in federal COVID relief funds for schools. 

Administrators should read this report in full and work with experts on how best to spend that money to address these past wrongs.