How did Covid Affect Learning Loss at Woodberry?

By Morgan Jay ’25

One month ago, Virginia’s governor Glenn Youngkin tweeted a statement regarding the newly released SOL data for Virginia public schools. The annual Standards of Learning exam is taken by all K-12 students in Virginia and serves as a tool to measure learning and achievement in public schools. This year’s results varied from previous years, suggesting effects of COVID on education, and in his statement, Youngkin doubled down on that point; “school shutdowns undeniably exacerbated the learning loss experienced by Virginia’s students…My administration is committed to working with parents, teachers, and the Board of Education to raise standards.”

This statement surrounding SOL results is hardly the first time learning loss has been mentioned in the past few months. Newspapers like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post have published articles on the subject, and magazines like National Review have published issues containing their take on the situation. One common theme presents itself among the articles I’ve read: students are behind, and the education system needs to adapt to get them back on track. However, most of the research points to learning loss in public schools, and doesn’t comment as much on a school like Woodberry which is private and all-boarding. For that reason, I sat down with Dr. Mathew Boesen, Woodberry’s dean of the faculty, to learn more about Woodberry’s COVID response and post-COVID academic state. 

I started off our talk by sharing some data cited in a McKinsey Company report called “The Lingering Effects of Unfinished Learning.” The report says students are around five months behind in math and four months behind in reading, but Dr. Boesen is skeptical of their assigning a specific number. In his opinion, it’s extremely difficult to make a generalization containing such a specific period that a cohort of students is behind. That being said, he did agree with their assessment that most students took a hit, with the severity depending on what each respective student’s school was able to do. For Woodberry, that loss was less substantial because of our preexisting culture. In other words, we were set up for success. 

Woodberry’s history as an all-boarding school highlights our investment in personal and face-to-face interaction. Whether it be seated meal, faculty on dorm, small class sizes, or no phones on walkways, Woodberry’s culture fosters the development of relationships, and Dr. Boesen says this is one of the things that helped Woodberry respond effectively. For example, Zoom’s ability to serve as a useful learning platform improves with smaller class sizes, as does student accountability (even in a distance learning model). When the first effects of COVID reached Woodberry, students and teachers had already built relationships in the classroom, on dorm, and at seated meal, and this made learning at a distance more comfortable. Dr. Boesen compared face-to-face interaction to a monetary system, where each pre-COVID face-to-face interaction was a deposit, one that could be withdrawn later when in an online environment. 

According to Dr. Boesen, culture wasn’t the only thing that made learning loss less substantial for Woodberry students. Adaptation from the usual schedule also was a good decision, he said. While online, classes met less frequently with more asynchronous work, reducing burnout and fatigue. Being flexible and learning from mistakes (ie. trying to lecture on Zoom) was another strategy he deemed successful. 

While learning loss is present everywhere, Boesen argues that both culture and adaptation helped to decrease, but not eliminate, its significance here at Woodberry Forest.

Categories: Today

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