New American Scholars


Reversing Pandemic Learning Loss for Refugee Students Requires Community Action

Refugee students in New Hampshire experienced some of the greatest challenges transitioning to remote learning.


One of the largest gaps in the U.S. education system has become a canyon-sized crisis as refugee students have fallen significantly behind their peers after experiencing extreme isolation from pandemic-related remote learning.


The 2022 NAEP test, an educational assessment referred to as the nation’s report card that was released in October, found a significant drop in learning across the U.S. since the last test was conducted in 2019.


Eighth graders lost eight points on math, falling to an average 274 out of a possible 500. Fourth graders lost five points to an average of 236. This was the largest decline since NAEP started administering the test in 1980 with the most students ever scoring below what is considered “basic level.”

Reading scores declined overall: Only 33% of fourth graders and 31% of eighth graders read at or above grade level.


Like every other state, New Hampshire students experienced a decline in math performance. The implications are even worse for refugee students in the Granite State who were already at a disadvantage before the pandemic.


U.S. students experienced significant learning loss during the pandemic with the burden falling heaviest on low-income and refugee students.


Existing disparities were exacerbated by the pandemic

The term learning loss was coined in the 1990s to highlight information lost or forgotten by students during summer breaks that they had to gain back at the start of the next school year.


This knowledge gap, also known as the summer slide, typically occurred in high-poverty, low-resourced neighborhoods, including among refugee communities, where students had minimal access to summer programs and tutoring. When school started back up in the fall, these students tested significantly worse than better resourced wealthy students.


These disparities were amplified at the height of remote learning during the pandemic where absentee rates and at-home support left learning on the backburner with many low-income and refugee parents serving as essential workers.


“When you have a massive crisis, the worst effects end up being felt by the people with the least resources,” Stanford education professor Sean Reardon told PBS NewsHour for a recent story highlighting his research into learning loss with Harvard economist Thomas Kane.


For many refugee families, a lack of consistent internet connections along with familiarity with the American school system, left students in those households at a serious disadvantage. While schools provided laptops to help with the transition to remote learning, they could not adequately address other inequities that left refugee students falling behind.


Tutors Riyah Patel and Madison Rosato teaching English class in New American Scholars’ summer program


Overcoming learning loss requires additional support

One study from NWEA, a research-based nonprofit that provides academic assessments to schools, estimates that it may take between three-to-five years for students to recover from pandemic-related learning loss. Compounding these challenges is a nationwide teacher shortage.


Among the findings from the NAEP report that identified tactics to speed up this recovery, and offset teacher deficits, is the implementation of high-quality tutoring programs to improve academic performance.


New American Scholars President and founder Riyah Patel has seen firsthand the devastating tolls of learning loss, and the solutions that are required to help refugee students overcome the lingering impact of the pandemic.


Founder and President Riyah Patel teaching a summer program in Nashua, NH


Patel was inspired to start New American Scholars after witnessing refugee students at her high school struggle with pandemic-related isolation and educational challenges. Patel said she saw too many refugee students falling behind and being setup for failure. With remote learning mostly ending at the start of the 2021-2022 school year, the learning challenges have persisted.


“This isn’t something that magically went away once we resumed in-person learning,” Patel said. “This was a seismic event, and seismic events require time to rebuild and relearn.”


What started with Patel offering summer tutoring to 11 students who came from Nepal, Rwanda, Bhutan, and Congo, has grown into a larger and well-connected nonprofit that takes a multi-prong approach to addressing the areas of greatest need.


A more formal summer program now reaches more than 100 refugee students across New Hampshire by partnering with other refugee nonprofits to integrate services and provide quality educational content.


During the school year, volunteer tutors offer year-round individual and small group tutoring in the NAS-(Intensive) program. An after-school reading program supports elementary school students.


The “Study Buddy” program pairs refugee students with a peer tutor where they meet twice a week via a secure online platform where tutors provide help with school-related activities like homework or projects, while also being available to offer social support and mentorship.


“The process of recovery doesn’t stop when the bell rings at the end of each school day,” Patel said. “Our tutors ensure that refugee students are getting the support they need outside of the classroom. Together, we can overcome this once-in-a-generation challenge.”