As school districts near the end of a school year turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic, research is finding that the disruption in learning has caused learning loss that likely will impact student achievement.

“Our school communities have experienced and continue to experience many challenges during the pandemic, and learning loss is a significant issue students are facing in Pennsylvania and across the nation,” Acting Secretary of Education Noe Ortega said last week.

Local schools have reported a spike in the number of students who have failing grades and an increase in the number of students who will repeat grades after a year trying to adapt to remote and hybrid learning.

“We know (learning loss) occurred just by the sheer nature of students not being in front of teachers this year,” said Joseph Orr, superintendent of Jefferson-Morgan School District. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a small, medium-sized, or a big district. We’re all experiencing it.”

While school districts and teachers sprung into action to develop and implement online learning for students, it’s hard, local administrators say, to replace in-person learning.

“There’s no way students could get, using remote and hybrid learning, what they normally could have gotten in the classroom,” Orr said.

At Waynesburg Central High School in the Central Greene School District, where about 50% of students currently attend in-person classes, principal Bob Stephenson said there has been a jump in the number of students who have failed at least one course, and that, compared to years past, more students will repeat a grade.

“It’s been a difficult year. We’re going to see the effects of this not only this year, but for the next four years because of the number of students who did not do well during virtual learning,” said Stephenson.

Schools also are dealing with increased absenteeism and decreased engagement. Teachers report that they are encountering remote students who don’t log into class, or log in and then turn off their laptop cameras during class.

In a nationwide survey called The Voice of the Educator Study, which polled nearly 1,000 educators, including public school K-12 teachers, administrators and support staff in February and March, more than 97% of educators reported seeing some learning loss in their students over the past year when compared with children in previous years.

In the survey, conducted by Horace Mann, nearly one-third expected more students will need to repeat a grade.

In another national survey, by the RAND Corp., 66% of teachers said their students are less prepared for grade-level work now compared to this point last year.

“This is not something that’s just a loss that can be made up in a matter of months. We’re talking about generational loss,” said Ortega.

Research shows, too, that students of color and poorer students are falling further behind their peers, widening the learning gap among students.

Developing action plans

School districts are now planning how to address learning loss, say local administrators. They will use a portion of the emergency funding they received – and will receive – from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to address learning loss.

All districts are required to use 20% of the COVID relief funds to address “learning loss and the social, emotional, and academic needs of underrepresented students, including students from low-income families, students with disabilities, English learners, migrant students, students experiencing homelessness, and children in foster care.”

The rest of the funding can be used for other activities such as food service, training, technology, sanitation, mental health support, and other priorities.

----Washington and Greene County schools received more than $60 million in federal funding, while Fayette County schools received about $61 million from Pennsylvania’s $4.9 billion share in the most recent round.

Dr. William Henderson, superintendent of the Frazier School District in Fayette County, said the district will use a portion of its funding – $1.8 million in the most recent round – to provide free summer programs for all grade levels. The district will hold a STEM camp and will offer summer sessions in other core areas aimed at helping students close gaps.

In the Central Greene School District, which received $3.9 million in the latest round of emergency funding, Superintendent Dr. Kevin Monaghan called the federal aid “a godsend.”

“It has helped us tremendously,” said Monaghan. “We’re using those funds to remediate our students, those who have had any kind of learning regression and those who are struggling. That money is also being utilized for curriculum resources and other programs that would help us to implement intervention programs. Anything that helps us to take care of our students’ learning needs is welcome.”

Orr said Jefferson-Morgan, like other school districts, will work to identify learning gaps through local and state assessments, including the Keystone and PSSA tests.

Jefferson-Morgan will hold optional summer classes for elementary, middle and high school students, and the high school will offer credit recovery courses. For students in advanced placement classes, summer labs will be offered.

The district is also considering after-school and weekend sessions during the 2021-22 school year.

“We’ll do everything we can to help get students caught up,” said Orr. “We feel pretty good about how we’ve started, and we will continue to assess and address needs. It’s something we can’t do all this summer. It’s going to take time; we know that.”

Central Greene, too, has begun planning its summer school sessions that will be led by district teachers, and will offer both in-person and virtual options.

The district will offer a credit recovery program to help student make up credits in courses they failed.

“We hope students take advantage of summer school. We’ll do what we can to help them get on track and stay on track,” said Stephenson.

The state Department of Education recently released a toolkit and learning series, “Accelerated Learning through an Integrated System of Support,” to help guide districts grappling with the student learning losses caused by COVID-19 restrictions.

“We at PDE understand the impact the global pandemic has had on learning and are doing as much as possible to help mitigate learning gaps and offer social and emotional supports where necessary,” said Matthew Stem, deputy secretary of the office of elementary and secondary education.

PDE has also received a nearly $1 million federal grant from the Institute for Education Sciences to study the impact of COVID-19 on K-12 students. The two-year grant will include research on inequities in education and strategies to help students and schools move forward.

Celebrating ‘the founds’

Burgettstown Area School District Assistant Superintendent Mandi Figlioli said that while the pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for school districts, it also offers a chance for education to emerge stronger.

“You hear about people saying this is a lost year. But this has also been a ‘found’ year. The skills that students, parents and teachers have found during this time have been nothing short of amazing,” said Figlioli. “We’ve tried to capitalize on and celebrate the ‘founds.’”

“I’m incredibly proud of what parents, teachers and students accomplished. Parents have to be commended, and teachers have gone above and beyond. I’m sure every school district is absolutely amazed at what they’ve accomplished,” Figlioli continued. “As scary as this year has been, it’s offered an opportunity to reimagine what school can be.”

The ability of school districts to implement technology was pivotal.

“Compared to a year ago, we have more technology, more tools, and students and teachers have more confidence in those tools,” Figlioli said. “It’s been an opportunity for people who were afraid of technology to more toward the middle.”

Figlioli said children start each school year with different levels of readiness, and COVID “is making that variation larger than usual.”

Figlioli said the school district is considering how to address educational deficits created by the pandemic. The ESSR funding – about $1.4 million for the district this round – and PDE guidance have helped.

The district, she said, wants to “modify instruction for the long-term. “We want to be thoughtful and methodical about how to do it.

“We’re grateful and excited about the funding and the PDE support,” said Figlioli. “It’s a significant amount of money, and we need to make the best use of every dollar to impact every student we can.”

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