It’s catch-up time for Twin Cities students

Photo courtesy of MPS

Schools focus on countering distance learning losses

Twin Cities schools are trying to help students catch up academically as fall assessment scores indicate that distance learning slowed academic progress. A new study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research found that academic declines were steeper in school districts where students learned from home more often.

The bulk of kindergarten through fifth-grade students in St. Paul Public Schools attended in-person learning for about half of the 175-day 2020-2021 school year. Now, most students are back to traditional learning within a building.

But the consequences of virtual learning continue to emerge. The full impact of the pandemic on students’ education remains to be determined and somehow rectified.

“Teachers are reporting that [the students] came back a little different,” said Craig Anderson, the district’s executive director of teaching and learning. He said some students had had a difficult time adjusting back to the structures and regimes of a typical school day. 

St. Paul students’ academic growth took a hit during pandemic-era distance learning. When compared to 2019 pre-pandemic reading and math test scores, performance dropped in the fall 2021 semester. The slowed growth is most apparent in the district’s youngest students, Anderson said.

“First grade is really the year when you learn how to read. And not having that face-to-face with their teacher in small groups and at the rug and watching our mouths and learning the letters…has really affected the kids coming into second grade,” Anderson said. “We definitely see reading lags in second grade.”

Minneapolis Public Schools students also spent much of the 2020-2021 school year learning from home. Like students in St. Paul, Minneapolis students fell behind in reading and math, data from fall screeners shows. 

“We saw a decline, generally speaking, overall in the district,” said Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff. “We’re seeing a greater decline in our kindergarten students when comparing this year to last year.”

In both districts, the declines were more pronounced among Black students. In Minneapolis Public Schools, the overall student population gained one percentage point in literacy between the 2019 and 2021 fall semesters, while Black students lost a point.

In math, students lost about three percentage points overall. Black students lost six points. 

A working paper published in November in the journal National Bureau of Economic Research documents how, among third- through eighth-grade students across 12 states, declines in academic performance were steeper in areas with less in-person learning.

Of the states included in the study, in-person learning rates were highest in Florida and Wyoming and lowest in Minnesota and Virginia. Losses in English and language arts were “significantly larger in districts with larger populations of students who are Black, Hispanic or eligible for free and reduced price lunch,” according to researchers. 

Photo courtesy of MPS Sheridan Elementary students

Districts with more Black students were also less likely to offer in-person learning options in 2021. Both Twin Cities districts, which serve a combined 70,000 students, are introducing and expanding programs to help repair learning loss and better support students’ academic growth. 

St. Paul Public Schools hired 70 WINN (What I Need Now) teachers to work primarily with kindergarten, first- and second-grade students, delivering literacy instruction in small groups. The instruction supplements students’ regular daily reading lessons. “They kind of get a double dose every day,” Anderson said.

The district is also providing additional professional development sessions to teachers to encourage more data-based decision-making and offering more enrichment opportunities, including creativity-boosting “makerspaces” for students. 

Middle school students are using SIPPS, a computer-based reading program new to the district that targets deficits and adapts to a student’s individual performance. High school students can take advantage of one-to-one tutoring. 

Minneapolis Public Schools is targeting young learners through expanded early childhood programs. “This year we’ve added 12 additional classrooms,” Graff said. “We now have approximately 60 students that we are supporting from one location on the North Side and one location on the South Side.” 

Literacy and math coaches are placed at each elementary school in the system, and the district is investing in universal access to devices for students. The district has also invested in translation and interpretation technology to facilitate communication with families during the pandemic and expanded summer and afterschool programs.

The Great Resignation has also made it harder to fill school-based positions, Graff said. The district is working to recruit new talented teachers and incentivize current employees to manage vacancies.

Long-term effects of the pandemic on kids extend beyond learning loss. The National Institutes of Health reported in October that about 140,000 children in the U.S. lost a parent or primary caregiver to COVID-19 between April 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021. Both districts are providing services to support students’ mental health. 

“This is not a quick race,” Graff said. “This is a long-term marathon that we are going to be operating through. We’re going to have to continue to evaluate as we’re going forward, what the impact of this pandemic will mean for our students academically, and what it will mean for our students emotionally.”