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COVID-19 has upended education. How will schools solve for learning loss?

An unprecedented year of academic disruption has scrambled what school means for millions of students. Getting kids back on track will be a challenge.

Facing a classroom full of empty desks, and staring into a computer in front of her, Amanda Woods reminded the Pottstown seventh graders on the other side of the screen that their poetry assignment was due the next day.

“Two minutes I have left with you — please don’t leave,” she said.

Woods implored her students to email her their drafts. “I love to read what you guys write,” she said.

The classroom at Pottstown Middle School was quiet. Most of Woods’ students don’t speak aloud during class, instead typing questions in the chat. Keeping them engaged is a struggle: On a recent Thursday, one student logged out after 30 seconds. Another joined 26 minutes after class began.

Compared to last year at this time, Woods believes many aren’t making the same progress — “I hate to use the word behind,” she said — they would have if the coronavirus had not upended the school system, pushing classes online and scrambling the lives of families.

More than a year into the pandemic, how students are faring, and how much they’re learning, has drawn intense attention. Billions in federal aid are coming to schools to address “learning loss” — an academic concept that has seeped into the national consciousness as educators, families, and students measure the impact of the unprecedented disruption.

There is little dispute that children’s schooling has suffered. The data are still spotty, but what’s there shows students nationally are performing worse on assessments than peers in years past — particularly in math, though, for younger children, also in reading. The drops are not uniform: Black and Hispanic students and those from lower-income families are falling further behind.

The Inquirer contacted more than 90 districts across Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey last month to ask if they had seen or measured learning loss this year and how they were responding to it. Of those that responded, more than two dozen said some students were struggling more so than in the past. Among the other findings:

  1. Test scores have declined across different groups of students. In Philadelphia, district data show first graders’ performance on reading tests fell 15 percentage points compared to a national sample of students between this fall and last winter. In Camden, internal district assessments found a 30% decline among high schoolers this year in mastery of math and language arts concepts.

  2. More students are failing classes in both high performing and academically struggling school districts. In some, failing grades have doubled or tripled from the last school year.

  3. Sagging attendance and participation has been a problem. At one Philadelphia K-8 school, a principal said the percentage of students with consistently strong attendance was 44% and “falling precipitously.”

  4. Most said they were planning to address learning gaps, primarily through expanded summer school, and federal aid is likely to help. Only one, Upper Darby, put a cost to any initiative — estimating an additional $600,000 to $900,000 for a summer program designed to help about 12% of its students.

The pandemic year has disproportionately impacted students of color and those in poverty. The majority of Philadelphia students remain learning virtually, for instance, while students in whiter and wealthier districts largely were offered in-person instruction sooner. Many private schools have been providing face-to-face classes all year.

It’s impossible to fully pinpoint what the academic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic will be. At the same time, the focus on learning loss has drawn skepticism among some in communities hit hardest. The bigger problem isn’t the impact of one year of virtual learning, they say — but decades of trauma, racism, segregation, and unequal funding for public schools.

“People put a lot of stock into learning loss, and this has been a tough year for kids, but it was tough before,” said Keziah Ridgeway, a social studies teacher at Northeast High School in Philadelphia. “The same people who are complaining about kids not being in school didn’t used to care about mental health, literacy, or the fact that most of our students coming into high school can’t do algebra.”

Still, the prospect that the pandemic may widen existing divides is worrying school leaders and researchers, who see vast challenges in getting students back on track.

“We owe this generation of kids a lot,” said Robin Lake of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research group in Washington state. “What are we going to do to repay them, and how do we know if we’ve made them whole?”

‘New layers of gaps’

“Learning loss” has become a widely used term, but it doesn’t capture exactly what researchers are measuring. A student may not have forgotten how to do fractions. But she may not be learning as much math this year as would be expected had the pandemic not occurred.

The consequences of such slowdowns can be steep: If children don’t learn to read by third grade, for instance, research has shown they are four times more likely to not graduate from high school.

So far, researchers say data on student achievement during the pandemic aren’t as bad as initially feared. Yet, districts are seeing declines.

Among them is Camden, an economically depressed state-takeover district where most students were already lagging their peers in more affluent suburban schools.

“Now, we have new layers of gaps,” said Superintendent Katrina McCombs. High schoolers’ scores on math and language arts tests are down 30% compared to a typical year, she said, while testing has found about a 10% decline in math and language arts among fourth to eighth graders.

It’s not atypical for test scores to drop in the fall — a phenomenon often referred to as the “summer slide.” But Philadelphia saw a steeper than usual drop in reading among its youngest students this year: First graders, whose kindergarten year was scrambled by the pandemic, slid by 15 percentage points.

“This is not an indictment of teachers; they’ve been working incredibly hard with young people,” said Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. “This is just about interrupted learning, about shifting to a digital platform, shifting to ways where teachers can’t respond directly to children when they see a need.”

National data from tests administered in 100 school districts last fall found second and third graders were 30% behind expectations in their ability to read aloud. The gap was wider for children in lower-achieving districts — who are now learning to read at a slower rate than peers in higher-performing schools, according to Stanford University researchers.

Even traditionally high-achieving districts are recording declines. In the West Chester Area School District, kindergartners in January scored in the 34th percentile nationally in identifying the first sound in spoken words — down from the 70th percentile last year. (Children fared better in other areas of the reading test, with scores in the 41st to 63rd percentiles.)

“We haven’t built that foundation with kids, especially in reading,” said Superintendent Jim Scanlon.

Schools are also seeing an increase in failing grades. This fall, nearly 9% of West Chester ninth graders failed two or more required subjects, up from just 1% the year before. Grades partly rebounded by February after teachers went over material and let students resubmit assignments.

At Radnor High School, 94 students received F’s in the first marking period this year, or three times as many as last year. The pace slowed a bit in the second marking period but still nearly doubled, to 109, over last year’s total.

Addressing the school board last month, Principal PT Kevgas called the numbers “shocking,” but noted the situation was not unique to Radnor High.

“Everything in our students’ lives has been turned upside down,” she said.

Virtual school was a huge adjustment for Lila DiMasi, an 18-year-old senior and president of the National Honor Society at Collingswood High School. DiMasi has fallen three months behind in AP Art History, one of four advanced classes she took to earn college credits.

“My grades have tanked. I can’t keep up,” said DiMasi. Online classes followed by homework left little separation between school and home life, she said.

“Everything is so much harder this year,” she said.

Though DiMasi has struggled, the year is not lost. She has been accepted at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton, and she recently returned to in-person classes. She feels more settled, she said.

Missing students

How much learning has been lost varies from school to school and student to student: Not all have fallen behind; among those who have, not all have done so equally.

But many schools are worried about students who aren’t showing up to virtual classes.

At Ziegler Elementary, a K-8 in Philadelphia’s Oxford Circle neighborhood, students who attend every day are learning at a rate close to where they were last year.

But fewer students are regularly participating. At roughly this time last year, 55% of Ziegler students were attending 95% of the time. Now, just 44% are.

“And the attendance criteria this year are super-low,” said Principal Robert Berretta. “You could be marked present for being a black screen on the computer and we don’t hear from you at all. We don’t even know how much they’re getting out of it.”

That challenge isn’t solved simply by reopening buildings. While Philadelphia has started bringing students back to classrooms, many families have opted to stick with virtual school. At Ziegler, only 39 out of 144 eligible students returned.

» READ MORE: Just because schools reopen doesn’t mean the kids show up

In Pottstown, where close to 70% of students come from low-income families, the middle school allowed struggling students to return in person before opening to others.

Of 150 students invited, barely half chose to do so, school officials said.

On a Thursday last month, students were scattered among classrooms, headphones on and laptops open, listening to teachers who were simultaneously monitoring them and instructing other children at home.

“If you give me anything I can access YouTube on, I’m going to be on YouTube,” said Anthony Stofko, 12, a sixth grader who opted to return. Being at school is “a lot easier because you’re not tempted to do anything else.”

For Isabella Flores, 11, who was invited to return after struggling with online classes, home was too distracting for another reason: She has six siblings, and four of them sometimes share a table for schoolwork.

“I’m kind of disappointed in myself,” said Flores, a sixth grader. “I normally don’t fail at all.”

Educators know many children’s circumstances make virtual school challenging — whether it’s poor WiFi or working parents. Some high school students have taken day jobs and haven’t kept up with classes.

But participation is also down at elementary schools, and failure rates are up: One Pottstown elementary failed 25 kids this fall, up from nine a year ago. At another, 56 failed, compared to 20 last year.

“For an elementary kid to fail language arts, that’s a big deal,” said Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez. “You have to not show up.”

In search of ‘bold initiatives’

Schools know children are struggling, but it’s not clear how deep the problem is. States canceled standardized testing last year amid the chaos of the pandemic. President Joe Biden’s administration is requiring testing this year, but it has permitted states to wait until the fall. Pennsylvania is letting schools decide when to test.

Data have emerged from companies that provide tests to districts, but the scores don’t tell the full story: A significant number of children didn’t take tests this year, as schools have struggled to track down students who stopped showing up once classes moved online.

Other students have taken tests at home, which can affect results; some administrators said they could tell parents had assisted. In some cases, children rushed through the tests.

“We know there’s huge variation out there in how kids are doing, but we don’t know which kids are really in trouble and what’s being done about it,” said Lake, of the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

Of the $7 billion Pennsylvania and New Jersey schools will receive in federal relief aid, $1.4 billion must be spent on mitigating learning loss.

Upper Darby’s summer school plan to help the neediest of its more than 12,000 students depends on “if we can get the 1,500 students to do it,” said Superintendent Dan McGarry. With families seeking a break after a stressful year, “that’s going to be a real hurdle for us.”

Some schools are planning to give screener tests to determine who should attend summer school.

» READ MORE: Even with new CDC distancing guidelines, getting more kids back in Philly-area classrooms is a ‘monster undertaking’

They’re also evaluating what to prioritize this fall. In Philadelphia — where 36% of children met state standards in reading and 22% in math in 2019, the last year the exams were administered — “we should be thinking about what are the foundational skills that we really need to be focusing on in the early grades, and think about trimming some of the fat off the curriculum,” said Berretta, the Ziegler principal.

Still, he said, it’s a tricky balance — it wouldn’t serve students well to just teach reading and math.

“We’re going to have to be really thoughtful about the assessments we do at the beginning of the year, and we’re going to have to get really creative about how we structure the school day to fix not just the learning loss from this year, but the long-standing learning loss,” he said.

The starkly different experiences children have had during the pandemic means “kids are going to come back in person with a far wider range of preparation and confidence … than we might expect them to show up with on day one,” said Matthew Kraft, a researcher at Brown University. He believes tutoring should be integrated into public schools — a costly proposal for most school systems.

» READ MORE: To honor Dr. King, fully fund Pa. schools, officials say

Camden is slated to get $106 million in federal aid and plans to assign two certified teachers to every K-5 classroom and offer more small group instruction and remediation for students who have fallen the furthest behind, said the superintendent.

“It’s going to take bold initiatives for us really to reverse this,” McCombs said.

Plans like extending the school year, making summer school mandatory, and tutoring “all sound good in theory,” said Erik Ruzek, a researcher with NWEA, an Oregon-based group that develops assessments. But it’s unclear whether they’ll work.

“The evidence for them is either mixed, underdeveloped, or nonexistent,” he said. “This is perhaps the most challenging issue we face in response to the pandemic and how to think about future learning.”

Taken a toll

School leaders know that before they can make academic progress, they have to address more pressing needs. At a school like Francis Scott Key Elementary in South Philadelphia, where most students are economically disadvantaged and nearly 70% are not fluent in English, helping children recover from this pandemic-touched year will go beyond just getting their reading and math levels up.

Many Key parents work, leaving children home alone to manage school. Others are home, but unable to support their children’s learning. And frankly, Principal Pauline Cheung isn’t sure she has a precise picture of where students are, academically.

When one Key student disappeared for a few months, Cheung and her staff tried to find the boy with phone calls and home visits. Eventually, they tracked his mother down — at work all day, she thought the boy was logging on for classes daily, but he wasn’t.

“He was upset — he told us how one day turned into two days, and then three days,” said Cheung. “I know he’ll need the academics, but he needs the social and emotional stuff more.”

As much effort as some students and families have put into virtual school, not being in the classroom has taken a toll.

Sunday Rice has a rule for her three grandchildren when they log on for their classes: no electronics other than those you need for lessons. But her Juniata Park rowhouse is not the same as school.

“You can be as quiet as you want to in the house, but the kids are not as focused because they’re still not in their school zone,” she said.

Her daughters work full time, so Rice quit her job as a health care worker to help manage Karon Blackman Jr., 8, a second grader at Juniata Park Academy; Rayana Purefoey, 15, a freshman at Little Flower High School; and Zion Johnson, 11, a sixth grader at Northwood Academy Charter School. Karon attends school in person two days a week, but Rayana and Zion are fully remote.

On a Wednesday last month, Zion sat at one end of the dining room table, wearing headphones as she tackled math; her mother, Jaquaya Rice, a federal government staffer, worked at the opposite end of the table. Rayana sat on one couch, busy in theology class.

Rayana attended school for part of the year, but decided to return to all-virtual learning after an outbreak of COVID-19 cases at her school. She doesn’t like virtual learning. With four people or five people online at the same time, the internet gets slow, and she sometimes misses parts of lessons.

“It’s harder,” Rayana said. “My grades aren’t as good — I’m not used to getting B’s and C’s.”

It was a light, asynchronous day for Karon, who zipped through his online math and reading program and was asking for lunch by 10:30. When his grandmother suggested he read a book, Karon raced upstairs to grab one.

Karon isn’t used to getting anything less than an A. But he’s “just more of an in-class learner,” Rice said; he struggled when the pandemic began and his Philadelphia public school shifted to all remote. For his last report card, Karon got his first C; his grandmother worries his writing has suffered.

“His feelings were so hurt, he cried for a couple days,” Rice said. “We explained to him, ‘You have to do more because you’re not in class, your teacher’s not there, now you have to learn to do things on your own.’”