A study shows that children who returned to school during the COVID-19 pandemic are significantly behind historical trends in academic performance for their age group, and are recovering more slowly than older peers.

Students who attended school during the pandemic consistently lag behind in math and reading, while older students show signs of recovery in reading but not math, according to new data from Curriculum Associates. The study compared three years of reading and math scores for students who were ages 3 to 9 in 2021 and compared them to historical trends.

“This just confirms the concern and frustration that parents felt during the COVID era,” Michele Exner, senior advisor at the education advocacy group Parents Defending Education, told the Washington Examiner“This was a predictable outcome, and yet the adults in charge of these school districts did nothing. Weak policymakers who relied more on teachers’ unions than on children’s education allowed catastrophic learning loss to occur, and the youngest students are still suffering the terrible consequences.”

Researchers compared the academic growth patterns of students who started kindergarten through fourth grade in 2021 and were tracked through 2024 to those of students who started the same grade in 2016 and were tracked through 2019.

The research comes as many in the education sector are scrambling for more funding as emergency relief funds for K-12 schools expire this year. However, the nearly $200 billion pumped into schools during the pandemic has shown only modest recovery in academic performance.

Data show that the youngest group tested, those in kindergarten or first grade in 2021, are lagging farthest behind the academic growth patterns of the same groups before the pandemic, or compared to students who were in kindergarten and first grade in 2016. Not only have they not recovered at the same rate as their older peers, but in some cases the gap with historical trends is widening.

While the oldest group tested, who were in fourth grade in 2021, are showing signs of accelerated growth in recovery after starting their first year post-pandemic well behind historical trends, kindergarteners are falling further and further behind the trend, while students in grade 1 are maintaining an upward trend but are not making up for lost time.

“The only group showing small signs of recovery are students entering fourth grade in 2021,” the study said. “In stark contrast, younger groups are either lagging behind or consistently below historical trends in both subjects. The differences by group could arise for a variety of reasons, including disruption of early childhood experiences, challenges in building foundational skills, younger students responding less well to virtual learning, or simply the interventions targeted at students in older groups.”

“As the younger cohorts missed their kindergarten through grade 1 school years, or were taught virtually during this period, they may have missed a critical moment when fundamental skills are developing,” the researchers add.

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One reason for the divergent academic recovery across age groups, the study noted, is the level of classroom placement. Students who were placed on grade level in reading “rarely fell behind” the historical trend and were close to trend in math. However, students who fell behind grade level in both subjects consistently fell behind the historical growth over time.

Like the Washington Examiner reported, many of the protocols put in place by elected leaders, under pressure from the federal government, have had detrimental effects on children academically, socially, and developmentally. Many of the protocols, such as masks and social distancing, both had little or no scientific basis, but had some of the worst long-term effects on children.