As schools open, how will those behind catch up?

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COVID-19’s impact on U.S education

Editor’s note: This is the third and final story in our series on the pandemic’s influence on education.

It is back-to-school season, and millions of students across the country are returning to classrooms to embark on a new academic year. While some children braved in-person learning armed with masks and social distancing this past school year, others haven’t been in a physical classroom in well over a year.

Across the age spectrum, students have indisputably been short-changed of critical social and academic experiences. Children who were progressing through their kindergarten year when the pandemic hit in March of 2020 are now walking into second-grade classrooms, while students who were sophomores when schools first shuttered are suddenly high school seniors.

But the academic consequences and long-term social implications of extended distance learning cannot yet be fully quantified.

Related Story: Experts urge quickest possible return to in-person learning

Dr. Elaine Allensworth, the Lewis-Sebring director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, has conducted research on educational policy and practice for the last 20 years. Although there’s been lots of talk of learning loss, Allensworth cautions against premature expectations.

“We don’t know how far students are going to be behind where they normally would be at this point,” she told the MSR. She noted that students’ experiences with distance learning weren’t uniform, but instead varied significantly based on socio-economic status and other factors.

“Some students had a really difficult time with distance learning,” she said. “For others it was not very difficult at all. In fact, some students even preferred it.”

Aside from the major issue of access to technology and internet connection, white-collar working parents likely had greater flexibility and were able to provide more support to their students while working from home. Parents who were essential workers required to work outside of the home likely found it more difficult to provide necessary assistance.

“Parents with many resources were able to hire people to help their students while other parents were trying to work and help their students with learning, but it’s just so hard to do,” said Allensworth. Then they would find out their students hadn’t been online after a week or two of them not participating.”

Allensworth predicts students might suffer from issues with concentrating, display behavioral issues, and experience larger gaps in academic readiness as they return to classrooms. She expressed particular concern for young students who would have had the most difficult time engaging during distance learning and been the most dependent on adults to help support them.

The good news is that young learners in a supportive environment are quite resilient and likely to recover from potential learning loss. But what does establishing such a supportive setting look like?

Allensworth warned against plopping assessments in front of students right away in an attempt to measure their progress. Instead, a major key to ensuring students’ success will be closely monitoring how individual students are performing and maintaining a two-way, open line of communication between parents and teachers. 

High-dosage tutoring during which students will work with an educator independently, or working in small groups on assignments reflective of classroom coursework can also be a great asset. Considering that some students may have developed their own schedule during virtual learning, Allensworth suggests it is worth considering how teachers might work greater autonomy and flexibility into the school day.

Anisa Diaz, principal of Somers Elementary School in Kenosha, Wisconsin, told the MSR that the return to in-person learning will require educators to rethink how progress is measured. “We’re going to move forward with the idea of continuous progress: taking the students where they’re at and progressing them forward,” explained Diaz.

The upcoming school year at Somers will include more time in small groups and more one-on-one learning and peer collaboration. “The approach has always been the same. It’s just that now we have more kids who are a little bit further behind,” she said.

Students’ mental and emotional health also play a major role in their success in the classroom. The American Psychological Association sounded the alarm last year as researchers expressed concern over how students would cope psychologically with the ongoing loss of access to the friends, teachers and routines associated with going to a physical school. 

Among juveniles who received mental health services between 2012 and 2015, 35% received the services exclusively from a school setting. Experts noted that students in disadvantaged communities with reduced access to mental health providers have been most vulnerable amid distance learning.

Nafeesah Muhammad, a high school teacher in the Minneapolis Public School District, suggested integrating counselors in the classroom could make learning a more healing experience and address mental health concerns. “We have to make an adjustment for how we all have changed over this past year and a half,” said Muhammad.

Teachers should view the return to the classroom as an opportunity to re-conceptualize what growth means, “go back to the drawing board,” capitalize off of methods and tactics students used to be successful during virtual learning, and apply them to the classroom experience,” added Muhammad.

Edairra McCalister, a high school English teacher working in the Osseo Area School District in Minnesota, foresees that the upcoming school year will consist of lots of re-teaching. She hopes there will be a “reset” among educators.

“It’s extremely difficult to even remotely think about them being fully prepared to go to the next level,” she said of students. “So I think for teachers that looks like having to do a lot of re-teaching and taking some steps back, which I think a lot of teachers will be extremely uncomfortable with.”

Allensworth also noted that stress makes it harder for students to learn effectively. “It’s really hard to focus on learning or focus on teaching for teachers if you don’t have stability and don’t know what to expect,” said Allensworth.

Even as in-person learning has just begun to get underway, schools in Nevada, Georgia, Florida and other states have pressed pause on face-to-face learning and shuttered buildings following outbreaks of COVID,” acknowledged Allensworth. “Unfortunately it looks like we still have a chaotic environment.”