Lost Learning and the Costs of COVID-19

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Feb 10, 2021

A child places his COVID-19 testing swab in a vial at South Boston Catholic Academy in Boston, Massachusetts, January 28, 2021, photo by Allison Dinner/Reuters

A child places his COVID-19 testing swab in a vial at South Boston Catholic Academy in Boston, Massachusetts, January 28, 2021

Photo by Allison Dinner/Reuters

President Biden's plan calls for $50 billion to scale up COVID-19 testing to support safe school reopening and protect at-risk populations like those in prisons and long-term care facilities. The plan also calls for $130 billion to help schools safely reopen and identifies summer school or other supports to help students compensate for lost learning time as permissible uses of this funding. Recent RAND research can shed light on how Congress might consider divvying up these two buckets of funds to support students over the next year.

A new RAND working paper examines the experiences of schools and districts that have already implemented COVID-19 testing to facilitate in-person learning. Researchers found that cost was one of the most significant barriers for these “early adopters.” However, it was difficult to put an exact price tag on the cost of testing: fluctuations in supply, advances in technology, and modified negotiated payments meant that the costs of testing changed frequently. Costs of tests varied widely, usually as a function of scale —from an anticipated $5 per test for a BinaxNOW rapid antigen test purchased by a state-level agency to up to $130 for a PCR test run by a local lab and purchased by an individual school. If the federal government were to provide more tests for schools, it is likely that the scaled costs would be more uniform—and lower for many schools.

The cost of the tests themselves is only one component of implementing COVID-19 testing in schools. Time spent managing testing programs, preparing test kits, administering tests, managing testing-related data, communicating with communities about testing, assisting with contact tracing, and reporting results to public health authorities all impacted staffing resources. These labor costs were difficult to estimate with precision, but were substantial: in some cases, early adopters noted that labor costs accounted for an estimated one-half to two-thirds of their total testing costs to date.

The cost of the tests themselves is only one component of implementing COVID-19 testing in schools.

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Early adopters relied on a variety of resources—including federal CARES Act funding—to address labor costs. However, these costs were not solely a challenge of resources, but also of capacity and expertise. While some early adopters were able to implement testing “in house” with local volunteers and by hiring and training new staff, others benefited greatly from partnering with vendors who could provide technical assistance around the design of programs or who could handle administration and other logistics.

Implementing programs without these external partnerships required substantial motivation and effort; one early adopter using an “in house” approach found that “despite expanding the roles of existing staff, the help of volunteers, and hiring new staff, those with central roles in the testing program had to work evenings and weekends to make the program operational.” The availability of vendors that can provide COVID-19 testing services at-scale—rather than requiring school staff to lead the work—and whether there is sufficient funding to pay them may be key determinants in whether many schools will find it feasible to regularly test staff and students who attend school in-person.

Unfortunately, reopening schools is merely the first step toward addressing the education losses brought about by COVID-19. RAND research shows that students are likely not getting all the curriculum content and instruction they would have received in a normal school year, and in a fall survey, more than a quarter of teachers indicated that a majority of their students were significantly less prepared to participate in grade-level work this school year relative to last school year. These statistics are even more troubling when the effects of COVID-19 on students who were already vulnerable to falling behind were examined, raising concerns that the pandemic might exacerbate existing inequities facing low-income and minority students.

Reopening schools is merely the first step toward addressing the education losses brought about by COVID-19.

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Summer school is one high-priority approach to addressing learning loss, and a decade of RAND research has shown how to design effective summer programs. How much might it cost to scale these programs across the country to address COVID-19 learning loss? The cost per student of a five-week, 6-hour-per-day summer program that incorporated academics and enrichment activities ranged from $1,070 to $1,700, with an average of $1,340, or $1,464 when adjusted to December 2020 dollars. To offer a program to all students in public K–12 schools would cost nearly $72 billion, although this estimate is on the high end, as it assumes all students would both have a need to attend and would opt in to attending.

To reduce this price tag, policymakers could consider narrowing criteria for offering summer programs only to students in Title I schools or low-proficiency schools, or students of particular grade levels:

Total number of public school students (PDF) Cost per student of summer school Total cost
Students in all public schools, K–12 49,021,561 $1,464 $71,767,565,304
Title I schools only 27,953,528 $1,464 $40,923,964,992
Students in grades 6–12 26,683,831 $1,464 $39,065,128,584
Students in grades K–5 22,337,730 $1,464 $32,702,436,720
Low-proficiency schools only 9,348,039 $1,464 $13,685,529,096

Summer programs are not the only solution to addressing learning loss. Another tactic that has been proposed is tutoring. Brown University's Matthew Kraft and Grace Falken developed a blueprint (PDF) to nationally scale tutoring across public schools. They estimate that targeted approaches, such as focusing on K–8 Title I schools, would cost between $5 and $15 billion annually. Districts could also consider extended day programs, Saturday school, additional classroom aides, and online courses as potential strategies to help ameliorate COVID-19 related learning loss.

Widespread concern about health among families and staff is a major barrier to schools' ability to provide more in-person instruction, and regular COVID-19 testing could play a key role in facilitating safe reopenings. Funding summer learning programs could help students who have already fallen behind—including students from vulnerable populations who were already facing inequities in learning. There are myriad other expenses that schools and districts might face as they work to safely bring students and staff back to the classroom and to address learning losses resulting from school closures. At first glance, the price tag for all these investments can appear steep. However, given estimates (PDF) that the United States could lose between $14 trillion and $28 trillion in GDP from lost learning due to COVID-19, the return on investment may more than pay off.


Grace Evans is a legislative analyst, Heather Schwartz is a senior policy researcher and director of the Pre-K to 12 Educational Systems Program, and Benjamin Master is a policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.