Virtual schooling during the pandemic has had a debilitating effect on academic progress for Black and Hispanic students, expanding already wide test-score gaps with their white counterparts, according to a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Those learning losses will have “major impacts” on Black and Hispanic students’ future financial earnings, unless schools use the bulk of their federal aid to help students recover academically, the researchers concluded.

Students attending high-poverty schools received a double dose of setbacks during the pandemic, spending 5.5 more weeks in virtual classes compared to wealthier schools and suffering 50% more achievement loss, the research found.`

“We are in a pretty deep academic hole, and the magnitude of that hole is as large as I have ever seen,” said Dan Goldhaber, one of the study’s researchers. “And it is a hole that exacerbates existing inequities in academic outcomes.”

The researchers analyzed testing data from 2.1 million students across 49 states and Washington, D.C., comparing expectations of how students should be performing to how they actually tested during the pandemic. (Alabama was excluded because the state does not disclose scores to NWEA, the testing organization that provided data for the study.)

While researchers saw learning loss across racial groups, Black students lost even more ground than underperforming white peers in math and reading.

Black and Hispanic students didn’t necessarily score lower than white classmates attending the same school, according to the study. Instead, schools that predominantly serviced these disadvantaged groups lacked the same resources that largely white ones, in wealthier parts of the U.S. Black and Hispanic students spent more time learning remotely, which researchers believe led to the lower test scores.

The study has not yet been peer reviewed or published in an accredited research journal.

Researchers warn that the learning loss has widened the preexisting achievement gap affecting students of color and could deepen racial and economic inequality for decades to come. According to a 2014 study, Black students were already 2 1/2 times as likely as white students to lack basic math and reading skills prior to the pandemic and about a third as likely to be proficient or advanced.

Because of preexisting racial and economic disparities, Black students were disproportionately enrolled in schools that had fewer resources to overcome the additional learning challenges created by the pandemic, said Lynn Jennings of Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for closing achievement gaps. For instance, an under-resourced school might be more prone to overlook a homeless student who struggles to get reliable internet to do their homework and may not have additional resources to support the student, Jennings said.

Despite the academic consequences, the benefits of virtual school have made it a complicated issue, especially for Black families. In the months after COVID shuttered classrooms across the U.S., Black parents were resistant to returning to in-person learning. In a July 2020 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black parents were less likely than any other group to agree that schools should reopen in the fall. In addition to health concerns, some parents welcomed the reprieve from racism that Black students can experience in school. During the pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau reported a significant jump in Black students that were being homeschooled, from 3.3% during the spring of 2020 to 16.1% by fall. For many Black families, the pandemic provided an opportunity to find other ways to educate their children.

Where experts are finding solutions

During the worst of the pandemic, communities that “were really just trying to keep their heads above water” were unable to address the learning losses effectively, Jennings said. But now it’s time to act.

“What we weren’t able to do then, what schools weren’t able to do then, we’ve got to go with fast motion now,” she said.

Educators and researchers have considered a range of solutions to help close the pandemic achievement gap, including providing low-cost tutoring, extending the school year, and using federal aid for additional supports for low-performing students.

As schools struggle with a shortage of teachers, some have advocated for using federal pandemic aid to help retain educators by raising salaries and expanding benefits. But some experts, including Goldhaber, think this aid should be targeted toward low-performing students, rather than the school in its entirety.

“I would hope that a pretty large share of the funding goes to try to ameliorate the damage that was done to those students who are most impacted by them,” Goldhaber said.

Communities are taking matters into their own hands

Instead of waiting for school districts and states to respond, some parents are looking to alternative educational programs to help rectify the learning gaps. The Black Mothers Fund, a nonprofit originally founded to mitigate the school-to-prison pipeline, has established microschools for Black families in Arizona. The group works with small groups of students to provide additional tutoring and instruction outside of class time.

In Oakland, California, a nonprofit organization originally started to advocate for reducing racial disparities in education has transformed into a free tutoring option for local students. Keta Brown, the program’s director of family liaisons, said she was shocked by how many families reached out to join the program after the pandemic began.

“People were finding out about us, and reaching out to us, and saying, ‘Hey, I need to get access to this,’” Brown said. “I need this kind of a program because there wasn't this investment in all of the schools, there wasn't a plan for summer learning at all schools.”

Community schools and tutoring programs can be time-consuming for parents. While less involved than homeschooling, the effort to research the programs, transport children, and then help them with the supplemental work can be more than some families can afford. But for those who can, it can make a big difference.

Christina Barnes, whose daughter is enrolled in Oakland Reach, said she made efforts to prepare her for kindergarten, reading to her nightly and playing recordings of the alphabet. By the time Naila started school at Oakland’s Urban Montessori Charter School in the fall of 2019, she could already read on her own.

But when the pandemic started a few months later, the school abruptly shifted to remote learning and Barnes watched her child wrangle with computer screens and online homework

“It kind of left her sitting here: listening, fiddling with stuff, messing around with her pens and pencils, playing a little bit more,” Barnes said. “She wasn’t engaged.”

Barnes had already enrolled her daughter, now seven years old, in Oakland Reach, giving Naila academic support that became even more important during the pandemic, she said. Shortly thereafter, Barnes began working at the organization herself, and now helps roughly 500 students, most of whom are Black or Hispanic, increase their academic performance.

Naila returned to in-person instruction in the fall, and Barnes’ pride is palpable. She competed in a multi-round math competition at school, using what she had learned from multiplication and division tutoring she received outside of school.

“These programs can give those kinds of results,” Barnes said, “where kids can showcase what they know, and feel great about it, instead of shying away from answering questions because they haven’t been prepared.”