More students are logging failing grades this year because of reduced in-person instruction due to the pandemic, local educators say.
Math is the subject where students are showing the greatest losses, according to educators, followed by literacy. National studies estimate as much as six to 12 months of learning loss for some students.
“There’s definitely some learning loss out there,” said Mark DiRocco, Executive Director · Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “There’s a range of predictions about how severe. There is loss, no question about that.”
So how are districts going to make up accumulated academic losses one full year into the pandemic?
Districts like Harrisburg that have been teaching remotely since the start of the pandemic are scrambling to try to get kids back into classrooms for at least a short time this school year. Other districts that already had students in schools part-time are trying to get students into classrooms for more days.
Districts need to get their students into buildings to gauge the learning loss and implement remediation plans, educators say. Many districts are gearing up for a summer like no other, with continued schooling intended for many students, not just those at risk of not graduating.
The recent $1.9 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress earmarked nearly $122 billion for state education agencies to distribute to school districts. Districts must use at least 20 percent of the money they receive “to address learning loss,” which means extra money for remediation resources and summer programs.
The Harrisburg School District plans to announce in April “a robust summer program, much different from usual,” said Acting Superintendent Chris Celmer, to better prepare students for the fall.
“The summer is going to be important,” he said. “We’re not just planning for this summer, but multiple summers.”
In the Mechanicsburg School District, education leaders formed a task force to investigate the short- and long-term impacts of the pandemic on students, said Superintendent Mark Leidy.
“This group is making recommendations for the remainder of this year, for over the summer and into next year,” Leidy said.
How best to provide students extra support after 12 months of reduced learning is the question school administrators are asking now, DiRocco said.
“It’s going to take a lot of support and effort to get kids back up to speed,” DiRocco said. “It’s probably going to be a long-term initiative. You’re not going to bring them back in the fall and get caught up in a couple of weeks.”
“This is going to have a lasting impact,” he said, “several years of extra work effort to get them caught up.”
Students in some districts may be further behind than others. The districts that were able to quickly pivot to remote teaching in 2020, then get kids back in school buildings this academic year, even part-time, likely will have less ground to cover, DiRocco said. Many private schools have been offering full face-to-face instruction all year.
More than 1.3 million students in Pennsylvania — about 75% of enrolled students — are receiving at least some in-person instruction, up from nearly 1.1 million two months ago, according to state Education Department data.
About 450 of the state’s 500 schools districts now offer at least some instruction to students inside school buildings — an increase of 100 districts in just two months.
But some students have been at home this whole time.
The situation is expected to compound racial disparities in learning and achievement because many of the districts that are still fully remote, like Harrisburg, are urban districts. Urban areas have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic and many parents have been ambivalent about sending their kids back into the school buildings, Celmer said.
Determining which students are behind and how far is the first step toward being able to offer remediation. But that’s difficult to determine in districts that are still remote, which could delay efforts to help students catch up, DiRocco said. Local assessments — performed in-person, offering immediate results to teachers who know their students — are necessary, he said.
Then there’s the social-emotional toll on students.
“We’re concerned about social-emotional wellness of kids and that is impacting learning loss,” DiRocco said. “When kids don’t feel safe, we’re going to have to address those issues as well as academic. So we’re going to need a lot of services to help kids recover.”
Meanwhile, teachers say they are exhausted after having to learn how to teach in a brand-new way. And many aren’t happy with the state’s decision to require standardized tests in this unprecedented year.
Many teachers say they’d prefer to devote every moment to instruction and local assessments, which take less time with quicker results, rather than preparing and administering standardized tests that require time-consuming security protocols and will only show what they already know: Kids are falling behind.
And some parents say they’ve reached their breaking points, as they try to juggle their jobs and responsibilities with managing their kids’ schoolwork.
Brandi O’Toole, who has two children in the Mechanicsburg School District, is concerned about how students can catch up when they’ve just been getting the basics for a year.
“We were told last year, ‘Your kids will be caught up this year,” O’Toole said. “But because they’re still in hybrid two-thirds of the way into the school year, there has been no time to catch up from the previous year.
“Now we’re being told again, next year’s teachers will catch you up,” she said. “But I don’t see how.”
Carla Porter, of Harrisburg, who is raising her 7-year-old granddaughter, said she struggled at first with the technology, but got repeated guidance from her granddaughter’s teacher that allows her to help at home. Now, she feels confident about using a tablet, and even downloaded apps on her phone that alert her to what her granddaughter is supposed to doing and allow direct contact with her teacher.
Porter is retired, so she is home most of the day and can monitor her granddaughter. She said she really doesn’t know how parents with jobs or multiple children do it.
Bethany Waiwaida started this school year optimistic about Harrisburg teachers offering live instruction over the internet. But after six months of being a single, working parent and trying to help her three children with their school work, she has given up.
She works from home and her children, in grades 4 through 6, are also home all day. They have online classes four mornings a week. There isn’t enough room in their house for everyone to have a private space to be online, so sometimes her son turns his camera off when his brother is in the room. Other times, she’s not sure what they’re doing because she’s on a work call.
“They can’t be in the room with me because their cameras and sound have to be on,” she said. “They can’t be in my room and be loud or do gym.”
She eventually stopped checking emails from the school district chiding her for her kids not having their cameras on or not logging in on time. At this point, she said she’s just trying to keep her job so she can pay the bills.
“I can’t be a mom and a full-time teacher,” she said. “If I’m being a teacher, then I lose my hours.”
Waiwaida is worried however, that her oldest son may not pass this year. He started out behind because of a delay getting him signed up for the district’s virtual academy. Her daughter enrolled without any problem but it took two months to get her son enrolled, and it’s been impossible for him to catch up with only online classes, she said.
O’Toole can relate. Mechanicsburg was one of several districts in the region that, until this month, only offered two-day-a-week in-person classes for elementary grades. Other districts were offering more in-person days.
Her son is in special education, so he went to school most days, but her third-grade daughter has spent most of the school year at home.
O’Toole said she is her children’s teacher about “life,” but teaching subjects she hasn’t studied for many years has been “extremely difficult.”
She and her husband have rearranged their work schedules, cut their hours and worked at inconvenient times in order to cope.
The fact that every day is different — some days at school, some days online — meant their 9-year-old couldn’t get into a rhythm and wasn’t showing progress.
O’Toole also thinks her daughter wasn’t getting enough to do. Her daughter went to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Wednesdays, the child had a 30-minute group meeting with her teacher via Zoom and completed worksheets, which took about an hour, O’Toole said.
It would be one thing if all districts in the area were doing the same thing, but O’Toole and some other parents in Mechanicsburg said felt their children were falling behind students in other districts, who they say were getting more instruction and seeing their teachers more.
“West Shore (School District) is teaching at least three hours on the students’ day home,” she said. “Cumberland Valley (School District) has been back full time. I kept seeing all these other kids going back full-time and we haven’t. If all the districts were doing hybrid, I would believe it’s the best we can do. Everyone around us has managed to figure this out. I can’t be the only parent questioning this.”
O’Toole’s concerns prompted her to start a petition to get kids back to school “full-time.”
Shortly after PennLive talked to O’Toole, the Mechanicsburg district returned elementary students to four days a week of in-school instruction.
Superintendent Leidy said the district had offered limited in-person instruction, even at the elementary level, because he was working “within the health and safety guidelines and the conditions in our school district.”
Teachers working OT
This year has exhausted teachers, who had to learn an entirely new delivery model for the curriculum and often were preparing both online and in-person lessons, just in case.
Halfway through the school year “in early January, it felt like we had taught all year already because we had spent so much time planning,” said Michele Rolko, president of Harrisburg’s teacher union.
Preparing lessons is one thing, but then everything must be posted online, adding another layer of work that didn’t use to exist, Rolko said.
“People are working around the clock,” she said. “People have been putting in countless hours and on weekends to make classes as fun and doable as it can be.”
Harrisburg teachers know the drawbacks of teaching online, but say they have appreciated the consistency of having fully remote classes all year. At least the kids know what they are doing each day and can get into good learning habits, she said.
“Our students need that consistency,” she said. “If we brought them back and forth and back and forth, I don’t think that would have gone well. That would be too unstructured.”
Teaching only online has been productive “to a point,” Rolko said. But there are still frustrations for teachers because of the things they can’t accomplish remotely.
The fully-remote model, however, has reduced one perennial problem for the district: teacher turnover. Because teachers have been happy to work safely from home with that consistency, Rolko said the district hasn’t lost as many teachers as it normally does during a typical school year.
“Other districts have been back and forth,” Rolko said. “A lot of teachers thanked our administration for keeping us remote.”
The Harrisburg School District started 2020 with one in five students having access to a computer device and WiFi. Now, every student has access to a device. It was a transformation that would normally take years, but occurred over five months.
Teachers similarly had a crash course in learning what worked and didn’t work when teaching online.
“We have all grown since the beginning of the year,” Rolko said. “I wanted to pull my hair out at the beginning of the year.”
School districts’ ability to offer fully remote education has opened a new avenue for the future, even after students return to the classroom full-time.
Some students simply learn better independently, or are excessively distracted by others or social problems in buildings. A tailored education could be offered to them by districts that now have the capabilities and infrastructure.
“That’s a great thing,” Rolko said. “We can now provide another platform for those kids who like to do things individually. There are a population of kids that are doing well under this system. We should continue to offer them something more like that.”
Harrisburg embraces opportunities
From the start, Harrisburg School District faced unique challenges. City residents were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and in the beginning, most families didn’t want to send their kids back to school buildings.
Even now, only about half of parents are willing to send their children back to school, according to a recent survey of 3,000 parents.
“To me, that sends a message loud and clear about the impact of COVID,” said Celmer, the superintendent. “I don’t think the vaccine in the city has been available on a wide scale. There is still much concern. People want to move cautiously.”
While other urban districts across the country lost thousands of students during the pandemic by going remote, Harrisburg had an early plan to prevent that. And it worked, Celmer said.
The district perennially has struggled with the transiency of many of its students. So when COVID-19 hit, the district built a team devoted to tracking students who didn’t check in online after two days.
The team went to students’ homes and knocked on their doors, even during the height of the pandemic, to find out if they had a device and WiFi, or whether something else was preventing them from logging in.
“We did it at a level I don’t think Harrisburg has done before,” Celmer said. “While we lost some students, if we hadn’t done this so aggressively, I think we would have been in a similar situation with those other cities.”
Schools in Michigan saw an enrollment drop of 53,000 students, including 13,000 that were fully unaccounted for. It was the same in Florida, where officials were trying to determine the whereabouts of 88,000 students who failed to show up for the start of the school year, according to ABC News.
Enrollment counts in Harrisburg this year decreased by about 200 students, to about 6,400, with much of that attributed to a decline in kindergarten enrollment, Celmer said.
Many parents had the opportunity to hold their kids back a year, he said, and the district anticipates an uptick next year.
Some of the decline also may have been students who went to outside cyber schools or were homeschooled. The district retained about 250 students who, instead of leaving the district, enrolled in its new virtual academy.
Besides adding the virtual academy, the district developed an all-day online schedule for other students, thinking they would be home-bound for just a few weeks.
“Toward the end of September, we realized that’s not going to happen,” Celmer said.
The online model was set up like a regular school day, with nearly seven hours of synchronous instruction. But that ended up being too much screen time, he said.
They adjusted to having more asynchronous lessons and families appreciated it, Celmer said.
“They were getting Zoom fatigue,” he said. “Just looking at a screen is difficult. The days I‘m on Zoom back to back, I feel like I ran a marathon. It’s draining.”
The district made adjustments all year, including taking a break from lessons on Wednesdays and working independently in “breakout rooms,” to reduce screen time but still provide rich activities.
Now, all hopes are to get Harrisburg’s youngest and neediest students back into classrooms next month.
“Nothing replaces the level of in-person instruction,” Celmer said. “I’ll be the first to say it.”
The district then will conduct the required state standardized testing, even though officials were hoping for a reprieve. The testing window starts in April and runs through September.
The district is going to do the standardized testing this school year rather than pushing it off to next year, hoping to gain big ground in the fall, which traditionally has been the longest period of uninterrupted instruction in the school year.
“We don’t want to give up any time in the fall,” he said. “We want to use it for all instruction.”
While the past year has been the toughest in anyone’s memory, Celmer said they are grateful for what they learned and the flexible options they will be able to offer students going forward.
“We have lost kids because we weren’t flexible,” he said. “I do believe we need to embrace a menu of options.”
The district already had the Cougar academy, which was a blend of in-person and online education; now it has the 100-percent virtual academy. District officials also want to develop distinct career pathways for students, depending on their skills and desires.
“Those are the conversations we’re having,” Celmer said. Just a few weeks ago, ”who knew we were going to have vaccines for our staff? I’ve never seen changes so quickly.
“What can we use that we’ve learned? I do believe we have an opportunity here.”
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