February 2022: Learning Disruption or Learning Loss

Harmey, S. & Moss, G. (2021). Learning disruption or learning loss: Using evidence from unplanned closures to inform returning to school after COVID-19. Educational Review. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2021.1966389

Summary by Dr. Nancy Scammacca


With the disruptions that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to students’ educational experiences over the past two years, many concerns have been raised about immediate and long-term effects on learning. At the end of the 2020-21 school year, McKinsey & Company’s Dorn et al. (2021) report compared Grade 1-6 students’ math and reading scores to those of similar students in springs 2017-19. The results indicated learning deficits in both subjects. Students in predominantly Black and Hispanic schools and those in predominantly low socioeconomic status schools experienced larger deficits, which widened existing achievement gaps. These results naturally raise the question of how to help students recover from the pandemic’s effect on their learning as they return to in-person schooling and weather further disruptions during the 2021-22 school year. Harmey and Moss (2021) address these topics by synthesizing previous research on the effects on students’ academic achievement of both summer recess and events that forced schools to close unexpectedly.

Learning Loss vs. Learning Disruption

As Harmey and Moss point out, much research and writing has been published concerning learning loss resulting from summer recess. In general, this research examined students’ academic achievement scores at the end of the spring term and the beginning of the fall term, with a decrease in scores considered to be a loss of learning. The consensus of the findings is that the effects are variable and depend on factors such as student demographic characteristics and how much gain in learning students experienced in the previous school year.

However, Harmey and Moss note that a summer break, which is a normal part of students’ lives, differs from the disruption in schooling that occurs due to an unexpected event such as a pandemic. As a result, the research on the effects of summer recess may not apply directly to the effects of COVID-19-related school shutdowns at the end of the 2019-20 school year. Additionally, returning to school after summer break differs in important ways from returning from a disrupted school year to the remote, in-person, and hybrid learning environments that students experienced during the 2020-21 school year. Therefore, Harmey and Moss looked to studies of events that disrupted learning in ways more similar to the COVID-19 pandemic. These events included natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, and epidemics such as SARS. In addition to being like the COVID-19 pandemic in the abruptness with which schools had to close, these events affected students’ social and emotional well-being as well as the lives of their families and friends. This ripple effect is another way in which the learning disruption due to COVID-19 differs from summer recess.

Study Purpose and Methodology

The main purposes of Harmey and Moss’s narrative synthesis were to identify the issues that need to be addressed after a crisis event causes learning disruption and to identify the best practices for reopening schools and resuming instruction under these circumstances. Using the methodology recommended for systematic narrative reviews, they searched databases related to education, psychology, and child health and development for published research that focused on unexpected and extended school closures and reopenings following a crisis event.

To ensure that their findings were based on high-quality research, Harmey and Moss only included studies where the source of the data and the steps taken to analyze it were clearly described. Additionally, they chose to exclude studies in which the school closure followed a violent event such as a school shooting. The issues raised by such events likely differ in important ways from learning disruption caused by natural disasters and disease outbreaks. Finally, some studies of natural disasters documented the effects of a disruption in learning after schools were permanently closed or students were forced to relocate. Studies were excluded if they did not involve the reopening of a school at some point as Harmey and Moss believed the issues involved in reopening schools were of paramount importance. It is likely that permanent closures or relocations affected students in somewhat different ways from the temporary closures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. They found 15 studies that met their criteria for inclusion in their synthesis. The crisis events described in these studies included Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Louisiana and Mississippi; a 2013 flood in rural Illinois; the Christchurch, New Zealand, earthquakes in 2010 and 2011; and the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

Because many of these studies used qualitative research techniques, Harmey and Moss applied qualitative research methods in synthesizing them. They coded key phrases and important quotes from the studies. Based on these, they identified three themes that emerged as the most important areas requiring attention when schools reopen after a disruption. These themes are School Leadership, Curricular Foci, and Mental Health and Care.

Key Findings: School Leadership

  • As a result of close ties between schools and the communities where students and their families live, school leaders are in a unique position to identify unmet needs during and after a crisis event. Therefore, other community leaders and government officials should work with school leaders to understand and meet these needs.
  • Effective communication between school leaders and students and families was identified as a critical aspect to weathering the crisis event. Some school leaders discovered that their communication systems were inadequate during the crisis.
  • Training school leaders in crisis management and how to communicate information and decisions accurately, frequently, and in a timely manner was identified as an important factor.

Key Findings: Curricular Foci

  • Few studies of the effects of learning disruption and recovery focused on the effects of the disruption on academic achievement. One study found some negative effects on math achievement for some groups of students. Other studies supported the need to ease students back into learning after an extended disruption and the importance of not adding stress to students by pressuring them to work harder to catch up on the missed instructional time.
  • Much of the research on learning disruption explored the use of school time to teach students about the crisis event and to allow them to consider how the event affected them. Teaching about the event serves as a means to understand what happened, counter false information with facts, and learn about the likelihood of similar events happening in the future.
  • Schools can support students’ need to express how the event affected them personally by providing opportunities to write and speak about their experiences through the regular curriculum in subject-area classes such as English/language arts.

Key Findings: Mental Health and Care

  • The majority of the studies in the synthesis addressed the need for mental health care and social support for students and families in the wake of a crisis.
  • The effects of trauma related to the event are likely to affect students’ ability to concentrate and to learn. Students need their teachers to notice when students are struggling due to the aftereffects of the event, which may appear months later in some cases.
  • Given that the event precipitating the school closure also likely affected teachers and other school staff members, attention to their emotional well-being also is important.
  • Anxiety about returning to school is likely to affect students, teachers, leaders, and staff upon reopening. Stability and normalcy were found to be of paramount importance.

Implications for Research and Practice

The findings of Harmey and Moss’s synthesis highlight the critical role of schools as anchors in their communities during uncertain times. School leaders are well-positioned to inform other community and governmental leaders about needs that are going unmet and to help make decisions about how best to direct funds for disaster recovery. Harmey and Moss also recommend that funds be made available to school leaders to meet immediate needs.

At the same time, school leaders need to have plans in place to manage a crisis and communicate effectively in its aftermath, as well as contingency plans for connecting with students while schools are closed and for sharing information on reopening when it is time. As with previous crises, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the need for improvements in these systems within schools.

Mental health resources need to be available in schools, as a crisis event requires attention be paid to the socioemotional impacts such as anxiety that may hinder learning for students. The mental and emotional well-being of teachers and other school staff members requires additional resources as schools re-open and all must weather the ongoing disruptions caused by surges in COVID-19 infections.

Findings from the synthesis indicate that teachers would benefit from professional development around topics such as crisis management, recognizing the effects of trauma on students, and approaches to using the curriculum to provide opportunities for students to express their thoughts and feelings about the event that led to the learning disruption.

Harmey and Moss identified a gap in the research literature on the effects of learning disruptions on academic achievement. Work is already underway to document these effects, including the McKinsey and Company (2021) report, cited above, and the additional resources listed below. However, more work is needed that aims to understand the effects of the COVID-19 disruption on students with learning disabilities. These students may have struggled more with remote learning than their peers, and they may need more supports to return to school and recover from the disruption in their schooling. Research on the most effective approaches to help both students with LD and typical achieving students recover academically from such events is needed. Undoubtedly, the lessons learned from the current pandemic will provide a better foundation for school leaders to manage future learning disruptions in a way that minimizes their effect on students.


Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., & Viruleg, E. (July 2021). COVID-19 and education: The lingering effects of unfinished learning. McKinsey & Companyhttps://www.mckinsey.com/industries/education/our-insights/covid-19-and-education-the-lingering-effects-of-unfinished-learning

Additional Resources

Donnelly, R., & Patrinos, H. A. (2021). Learning loss during COVID-19: An early systematic review. Prospects. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11125-021-09582-6

Engzell, P., Frey, A., & Verhagen, M. D. (2021). Learning loss due to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences118(17). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2022376118

Hammerstein, S., König, C., Dreisörner, T., & Frey, A. (2021). Effects of COVID-19-related school closures on student achievement—A systematic review. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.746289