Even before an explosion of COVID-19 cases shuttered schools 18 months ago, it was clear some students were being left behind.
Now, testing across the nation shows that, on average, COVID has put students five months behind in math, and four months behind in reading. For those already struggling, it got worse. Students in predominantly Black schools average a six-month lag in math, and it's seven months in low-income schools.
Also heartbreaking was the inability to properly serve students with special needs, as 46% of New York City’s students with disabilities lost some or all of their core services. On Long Island, many districts report similar shortcomings.
The struggles go beyond academics as socialization, athletics, and the arts suffered. The pandemic also engenders fear and heartbreak, and many children have lost loved ones. Polls show that 80% of parents have concerns about the mental, social, or emotional health of their children.
But what COVID-19 did to schooling is also an opportunity, as schools too stuck in their ways were forced to innovate. The opportunity for evolution and revolution is a godsend, the $200 billion in federal funding flowing to the nation’s schools a launchpad.
To make up COVID’s learning loss and identify the broader changes needed, we must determine what the children know. Every district does its own standardized testing, and now more than ever, the data must be properly utilized to guide each child and inform teaching for schools, districts and the state.
Even those without children currently enrolled deserve to know how their district is performing since so much of housing values, and taxes, are based on the districts.
We have to learn what’s needed, and which methods of addressing it work best. The observations of trained educators are a part of that, but so are quantifiable results.
NEW CHALLENGES, APPROACHES
When schools went virtual, many parents learned how tough teaching is. Many also got more involved with their children's educations, and are glad they did.
Both the appreciation of teachers and the hands-on help of parents must continue.
Even so, kids are behind and must catch up. Tutoring, summer school, and afternoon, evening and weekend remediation are crucial, and unpopular. But there are innovations for that.
In Rhode Island, summer school coupled core subjects with sailing and cooking lessons and instruction in Olympic sports, to great effect. In Malverne, younger students learned coding by creating video games, and lessons for older ones incorporated drones. “We couldn’t get kids out of the buildings,” Superintendent Lorna Lewis said.
Even as students catch up, they must rise up. Lessons from the pandemic can help. Take just one innovation — “flipping school.” The idea is to have kids do “homework” in school under teacher supervision, but watch lectures at home. It’s long been resisted, but COVID’s remote learning gave it new life.
This enables other improvements. Students watching lectures on screens ought to see the best lecturers in the state or nation on that subject. This frees up local teachers to really work with students.
What if those teachers took turns “on call,” manning a help desk, so students could get aid via computer or phone with tough concepts in any subject at night or on weekends? What if districts and regions collaborated on this, and on offering niche courses and enrichment?
What if school operations were based not on the habits of the past or the preferences of teachers unions, but in response to what works best and what students need most?
RESISTANCE WILL BE FIERCE
Defenders of the status quo say “learning loss” is imagined or, because kids learned new skills in a pandemic, trivial. Some claim the assessment that students at low-income and majority-minority schools fared worst is not a fact but a trope of racism and privilege. They say the only change needed is bigger fistfuls of cash.
And it doesn’t help that districts desperate to focus on teaching kids are being assailed over rumors of “Critical Race Theory” and arguments that crucial vaccination and mask initiatives violate student rights.
SCHOOLS MUST LEARN
As technology and changing social patterns revolutionize society, even schools with computers and smart boards can be outliers. In many ways, a student or teacher transported from the year 1900 would feel at home in a Long Island classroom.
But the challenges have changed dramatically, as have the teaching tools available. Schools must, too. Current learning loss is real.
For the next few years, schools have a federal funding stream to make change possible, and a transformative emergency to fuel innovation and invention.
There’s never going to be a better time to redesign our education system. And there’s never going to be a worse time to fail the students who’ve already been through so much.
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MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.