Pandemic-related learning loss will cost our children $17 trillion in lifetime income, according to a U.N.-backed report released in December 2021.
"A mounting body of evidence confirms that learning losses as a result of COVID-19 school closures are real," the report said.
In the U.S., the most significant impact is on young children.
The report found 30% of Texas third-graders tested at or above grade level for math in 2021, compared to 48% in 2019. Similar learning losses were reported in more than a half-dozen other states.
"We're concerned if we don't catch up," said Dr. Pamela Davis-Kean, a research professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. "If we don't overcome some of this, there are groups of people who probably will not be in the economic situation that they might have been in two years ago."
Davis-Kean said the abrupt shift to remote learning in spring 2020 had a negative impact on students and parents.
"Education, since the Industrial Revolution, has been in the institution of schooling. We moved it back to the home," Davis-Kean said. "The parents were the ones who had to make sure to connect the kids. They had to have the resources in the home to connect the kids."
Parents and legislators alike are eager to close the learning gap.
The American Rescue Plan, which Congress passed in early 2021, included $122 billion in funding for schools.
At least 20% of the money had to be spent "to address learning loss through the implementation of evidence-based interventions, such as summer learning or summer enrichment, extended day, comprehensive afterschool programs, or extended school year programs," according to a U.S. Dept. of Education fact sheet.
"Education is something we can always do something about," Davis-Kean said. "We can always teach, and kids will always learn. We just have to make sure that we have the opportunities to do that."
Most districts are already investing in programs to help children overcome learning loss.
A Bloomberg analysis in November 2021 found more than half of school districts that received stimulus money had set some aside for summer learning. About a third set aside money for tutoring.
However, that means many districts did not set aside extra funding for programs designed to fight learning loss.
Over the long term, the decision could put children at a disadvantage.
"People can argue about it, but education is generally the thing that opens up the door to higher-earning occupations," Davis-Kean said. "Once you change that in one generation, it opens up a door for the next generation."