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Blog post Part of special issue: Covid-19, education and educational research

Learning loss or learning disruption?

Sinéad Harmey, Lecturer at Institute of Education

Alarm has been expressed about the likely impact of Covid-19 on children’s academic achievement with terms such as ‘closing the gap’, ‘learning loss’ and ‘catch up’ permeating discussions. Yet attempts to calculate the effect of school closures due to Covid-19 focus on and draw conclusions from a literature about learning loss (EEF, 2020). This research generally concentrates on the effect of summer holidays on children’s learning, particularly how it affects children from disadvantaged communities. There are many limitations to this research, including how it estimates loss, but perhaps the biggest flaw is that planned school closures for summer holidays are simply not the same as the unplanned closures for Covid-19.

When schools close for the summer holidays, closure is typically characterised by a ‘wrapping up’ of learning, preparation for transitions and celebration. Teachers prepare children for transitions to new year groups. When schools reopen, teachers and children have had a break and teachers are prepared to welcome children back. This minimises any ‘back to school’ trepidation. This is not the same as the closures and subsequent reopening due to Covid-19.

‘There are many limitations to research [into the effect of school closures] … but perhaps the biggest flaw is that planned school closures for summer holidays are simply not the same as the unplanned closures for Covid-19.’

In a recent review of the literature for an ESRC-funded project , we concluded that unplanned school closures and reopening due to Covid-19 were more like closures due to natural disasters (such as Hurricane Katrina) or pandemics. These learning disruptions, in contrast to planned school closures, are characterised by disruption to daily life, increased likelihood of illness, economic stress, anxiety about returning to school, and a need for a period of recovery. With this in mind we conducted a systematic review of the literature (see Harmey & Moss, 2020), focusing on research that documented what schools did as they reopened after learning disruptions and synthesising key recommendations about supporting a return to school after unplanned closures.

Our review identified three main themes in the literature relevant to unplanned school closures during Covid-19.

1. School leaders are pivotal in leading a successful return to school

School leaders are pivotal in the return to normality. The literature identifies the importance of school leaders’ local knowledge – they understand the effect of Covid-19 on the local community including variations due to levels of poverty. They are best placed to use funds to respond appropriately. Giving school leaders opportunities both to reflect on their experiences about what happened when schools closed and to feed into developing contingency plans is a vital step in recovery that will help prepare for further unplanned closures.

2. The curriculum needs to be responsive to children’s needs

When schools reopen after closing due to unplanned events like a pandemic, children need a change in the pace and content of the curriculum. Providing more time and flexibility in curriculum delivery is essential, rather than focusing on testing, inspection and catch-up. Schools also found that time was better spent leveraging the curriculum to teach the facts about the event and providing children with the opportunity to express themselves through the arts and literature. We do not know what children have experienced during closure and how they understand events. We do know, however, that the time spent out of school will not have been like a normal summer holiday.

3. Schools are essential in supporting the mental health of students

Finally, we found that teachers and children returning to school after unprecedented events may have a need for mental health support. For example, post Hurricane Katrina, teachers reported feeling unprepared to deal with trauma and needing support to do so. Teachers may experience anxiety themselves due to personal circumstances and in dealing with changing circumstances in school. All of this needs to be factored into developing appropriate professional support for staff and pupils.

Perhaps the overriding conclusion to be drawn is that a major period of disruption is best helped by recognising the time it may take to recover well. Recognising this may put the school system in a better place to deal with whatever happens next, including accommodating further periods of disruption, rather than rushing pell-mell to catch children up with where they would have been if none of this had ever happened.

Further resources

To read more about this research project see

For more about the International Literacy Centre see


Education Endowment Foundation [EEF]. (2020). Impact of school closures on the attainment gap: Rapid evidence assessment. London.

Harmey, S., & Moss, G. (2020). Learning loss versus learning disruption: Written evidence submitted by the International Literacy Centre, UCL, Institute of Education to the Education Select Committee Inquiry into the impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services, July 2020. London: UCL Institute of Education.