With millions of kids still learning remotely, the learning losses are piling up.

Some school districts are reporting a higher level of failing grades this fall. A report from the consultant McKinsey & Company estimated that students were three months behind in math when they started the school year. And another study said learning losses were minimal, but left out many students from the analysis.

The pandemic is causing Black and Hispanic students in particular to fall further behind their white peers, according to McKinsey.

Former Education Secretary John King Jr. thinks a national tutoring corps is one way to help make up for lost time. Older students and graduates could receive credit or be paid to tutor younger students.

"We have decades of research showing that high intensity tutoring can help students make up lost ground academically very quickly," King tells Mary Louise Kelly on All Things Considered.

King now heads the nonprofit The Education Trust, which works to close opportunity gaps in education. He talked about the challenges facing schools when they fully reopen. Here are excerpts of the interview:

What about changing the curriculum to make up for this year and acknowledge just that they haven't covered the ground they would normally cover in an academic year?

That's going to be a huge challenge. It's always true that when a teacher walks into the classroom, kids are entering with a range of skill levels and backgrounds. But now, those gaps, student to student, will be even wider. Some students will have had their parents sitting next to them, supporting them through their learning while schools were virtual or hybrid. Other kids will have parents who were essential workers. And maybe it was just an older sibling who was at home with them. And so you're going to see big gaps in the classroom.

Teachers are really going to have to individualize kids' academic experience. They're going to need to respond to exactly where kids are. They going to need to diagnose what they've missed, what they need, and then address any gaps that students have.

How hard is it when you have 20 students, 30 students, maybe more, in a room? What would that even look like?

It's really challenging. It means you've got to define different tasks for individual students. You've got to have time to meet with students in small groups. Ideally, you'd be doing that in partnership with this national tutoring corps that I described so you'd have some help. But tailoring the instruction to students' individual needs is incredibly challenging, especially when you have students who may be multiple grade levels apart in their academic skills.

There are, I think, ways that professional development can help. There are some technology tools that could be helpful, but that also requires resources. And one of the big worries is that if Congress doesn't act, if states end up making 5, 10, 15% cuts to education, the districts that will be hit the hardest will be those districts that have the most students with tremendous need. And so you'll see a widening of our already unacceptably large gaps in performance.

Is there any upside, any opportunity here if we're reinventing school and rethinking how schools should work?

A couple hopeful things. One is, we've long had a challenge with inequitable access to advanced coursework. So some kids in high needs districts or rural communities don't get the same access to Advanced Placement classes to take college courses.

What this experience has done is shown us that really shouldn't be a barrier. We should never again have a kid who's told you can't take AP Spanish because we don't offer that in this building. We've seen that virtual blended learning is possible at scale.

I think about Northern Virginia Community College that last summer offered free college courses to any junior or senior in their region online. They knew they're offering the courses anyway for their students, so they open them up to high school students. So hopefully we'll see a lot more of that expanded access to opportunity.

The other thing that I think this period has challenged all of us around is developing student agency. In a virtual or hybrid learning environment, students have to set goals for themselves. They have to manage their work, they have to ask questions when they need help, they have to collaborate independently with peers. Those skills are things that will serve students well in college and in careers. And hopefully we've learned some things about how to cultivate student agency that will carry over to teaching and learning practices.

But let's be clear, even with those hopeful opportunities, COVID has been an equity disaster for education and we have a lot of work to do.

Andrea Hsu and Courtney Dorning produced and edited the audio interview. James Doubek produced for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.