While most teachers (and students) breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the 2020 spring semester, there was still a sense of unease when looking ahead. Educators wondered how much their students lost or never learned because of the pivot to online learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many are still concerned about schools opening in the fall and have received little to no guidance as to what their classrooms will look like.
A near-universal reality is that most students will be further behind than in previous years. Teachers will have to help them catch up and get back on track. But how? Let’s look at the present situation and see what options are available to educators.
Most COVID-19 Responses Were Panicked In the Moment
No one planned for a pandemic to sweep through the country and not even the most organized schools really knew what to do. As a result, most strategies were made within a few hours — with choices based on the information at the time. While districts offered laptops to students and secured options for free wi-fi, many students fell through the cracks.
“The lady next door has seven kids and no computers,” Sarah Carpenter, executive director of parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift tells the Washington Post. “The family up the street has no Internet. I’m afraid some families aren’t going to do anything because some families simply can’t do anything.”
District leaders were trying to do what was best for the majority of students. However, many students need more than blanket solutions. As a result, the most vulnerable learners are the most likely to fall behind.
“There wasn’t a lot in the way of interventions for kids who were falling off,” Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Education, says. “That’s a huge problem in distance learning.”
While teachers are able to identify students who are falling behind and schedule meetings with advisors during the school day, it is nearly impossible to have the same level of intervention with virtual school during a pandemic.
Looking forward, most states and school districts still don’t have a unified plan for how they are going to overcome achievement gaps. Denisa Superville at Education Week points to a March 2020 survey that asked district leaders: “How, if at all, do you plan to make up instructional time lost to coronavirus closures?” Most responded that they had not decided.
While it is possible that this survey was sent out too early to tell, long before educators realized the whole school year would be virtual, it does highlight how most school systems don’t have plans for emergency closures.
Educators Are Still Evaluating How Far Behind Students Are
Before educators can create plans to help students catch up, they need to figure out just how far behind those students are.
Kevin Richard, superintendent at SAU 9 in Portland, Maine, estimates that 20 percent of students have fallen behind in his districts; however, other superintendents in Maine estimate that number could be as high as 40 percent. “There is a group of students that do not have the level of support that they need to follow through,” Richard says.
One way to estimate how much students have fallen behind is to look at cases where schools had to close because of natural disasters and hurricanes. This comparison has its pros and cons. On one hand, researchers have models to start with to see what students lose. However, very few disasters have closed schools on this scale.
“We had to make a lot of assumptions,” Megan Kuhfeld, an educational researcher at Northwest Evaluation Association, said about a paper she recently cowrote on projecting the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. For one, relying on past data could overstate the facts, seeing as students did have some education in the form of virtual learning. Additionally, the same amount of lost time impacts students from low-income communities and from different districts schools at varying levels.
Students of All Ages Will Be Affected by the Pandemic
One thing is for certain, students of all ages, grades and backgrounds are going to have to catch up from lost time and missed material during the pandemic.
“Even older children often need help working through complex math and writing assignments and science projects, and they often need help staying on task with their work,” Jessica Calarco, sociology professor and author of “A Field Guide to Grad School,” says. “Having a parent with the time and mental energy to be the de facto teacher will inevitably give affluent white students with stay-at-home or part-time employed parents—or, more likely, mothers—an edge.”
Yes, students needed resources like laptops and Wi-Fi to access remote learning. However, they also needed parents or guardians nearby to assist. Younger learners needed help avoiding distractions, while older students needed tutors and secondary teachers to help with complex material.
“This is going to be kind of an educational plague,” Noliwe Rooks, professor at Cornell and author of “Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education,” says. “It’s going to widen some distances. It’s going to increase issues if you don’t prepare now what is more than likely coming.”
Rooks says educators need to enter the classroom with a plan in place to help students catch up.
Schools Are Combatting Health Risks With Education Needs
Unfortunately, the pandemic is still spreading in most states. While the CDC has issued guidelines for returning to school, not all of its recommendations are feasible on many state and county education budgets. Teachers won’t be playing catch-up as they do at the start of a normal year; they will also have to navigate modified schedules and policies.
For example, some schools are adjusting the average number of instructional minutes because of the pandemic. In an article for EdSource, Theresa Harrington reports how these numbers will change:
- Kindergarten classes will drop from 200 instructional minutes to 180.
- Grades 1-3 will drop from 280 instructional minutes to 230.
- Grades 4-8 will drop from 300 instructional minutes to 240.
This means that the majority of students (those in grades 1-8) will lose almost an hour of instructional time each day. High school students will lose even more time, giving from 360 minutes per day to 240. All of this means that teachers have less time to complete a standard curriculum, let alone help students catch up.
Furthermore, not all students will be returning to the classroom this fall. With cases still on the rise, many parents don’t want their kids exposed to large groups of students. Education reporter Lily Altavena interviewed parents who say they don’t want their kids to be used as “guinea pigs.”
Some Educators Are Presenting Solutions to Help Students Catch Up
The situation may seem bleak, but that doesn’t mean that some teachers and school districts haven’t put forth viable plans that could help both students and parents.
Keep Students With Their Teachers
In an interview with Hechinger Report, Alanna Bjorklund-Young, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, says one option for schools is to keep students with the teachers they were with the previous year.
This plan reduces stress on students having to adapt to a new teacher, while that educator already knows where students struggled and where they left off on the material. The teacher knows how those students learn and what their needs are.
Catching up on missed material may also be easier because teachers won’t lose time learning about their students — they will already know how to teach them.
Simplify the Curriculum to Focus on Essential Material
Some districts are reviewing the school curriculums to see what material is considered the most essential for students to know to advance to the next grade level. There may be some cuts to condense the school year. This idea has garnered support from some organizations.
“Run every idea through a simple test: Will this help every student get back to grade level?” writes the The New Teacher Project team in a COVID-19 response report. “We don’t mean ignoring social/emotional or other non-academic needs…but more than anything else, you should prioritize accelerating students’ learning by accelerating their exposure to grade-appropriate content—so that every student can get back to grade level.”
This option may hurt teachers, who enjoy creating projects and engaging students with unique material to foster a love of learning. However, it may be a necessary path in the short term.
Take a Data-Based Approach to Decision-Making
Regardless of the ideas that different school districts adopt to help students catch up, most people agree that data will need to be used to inform the decision making process.
In an April 2020 online survey of 5,500 educational professionals by Collaborative for Student Success, 71 percent of administrators and 59 percent of teachers say assessment will be a key tool in measuring learning loss.
“This is a particularly noteworthy result that shows that majorities of education stakeholders recognize that data will be a powerful ally in any effort to overcome the learning loss brought on by the current pandemic,” they write.
Along with data, educators can look for resources and leadership organizations in the field. Phi Delta Kappa International, a professional organization for educators, has taken the lead in recommending steps for students and teachers during the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers and administrators can use the PDK resource center to learn about inequities in education and the risk-reward balance that comes with certain policies. This may help prevent plans that hurt your most vulnerable students.
Experts Warn Against Holding Students Back
A few state governors, including Ron DeSantis of Florida, have proposed holding students back — or giving parents the opportunity to hold students back a year. The theory is that students can refresh themselves on the material and catch up, moving into the next year with confidence. However, this can quickly become inequitable when you consider which students aren’t advancing.
Students of color are significantly more likely to be held back, says Osamudia James, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law. Plus it may not actually offer any benefits to the students involved.
“Grade retention, particularly after grade 3, however, has not been shown to improve high school persistence or attainment,” James writes for the Washington Post. “Moreover, dropout rates are higher among high school students who were held back in middle school. Given the limited upside and social and psychological downside, wholesale retention suggestions at this point are unwarranted, at best.”
Some leaders have specifically spoken out against holding students back, citing the cost and inequities that come with it.
“Baltimore educators won’t be spending one minute of time or one ounce of their brain power exploring this option, for a simple reason: it will not help children,” Sonja Santelises, chief academic officer at Baltimore City Public Schools, writes. “The likely practical outcome of this extraordinarily expensive approach — $15,000 per student at Maryland’s current spending rate — will be to burden large groups of students already adversely affected by segregation with lowered expectations and even more segregation.”
The fact is, there is no easy answer for helping students catch up. In the same way that teachers had to make new plans when schools closed, they are going to have to form unique strategies to learn the lost material.