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The COVID Slide: School Shutdowns May Put Some Students Months Behind

Lakewood Elementary, part of Dallas Independent School District, is closed through the end of the school year.EXPAND
Lakewood Elementary, part of Dallas Independent School District, is closed through the end of the school year.
Nathan Hunsinger

Every weekday morning, Laura Currey gets up before her kids. She looks through weekly lesson plans from their teachers, then sits down at a whiteboard and writes out their assignments for the day.

By 8:30 a.m., class is in session. Currey talks to her daughter, a third grader, about what she needs to get done that day, then sits down with her son, a kindergartner, to work on reading and other schoolwork. Her son needs almost constant attention, she said. Her daughter is older and a little more independent, so she can handle most of her work by herself — usually after a little bit of resistance.

During normal times, Currey's kids go to Lakewood Elementary School. But since last month, when the district shut down all its schools in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, her children, like the tens of thousands of other students in Dallas ISD, have been staying home and doing their schoolwork online. Although she gets support from her kids' teachers, the shutdown leaves Currey with the dual roles of mom and teacher.

"It's a scenario that no one wants to be in," Currey said. "My kids don't want me for a teacher, I don't really want to be teaching."

Currey said she worries about where the shutdown will leave her kids academically. It's hard for parents to know what their kids should know when, whether they're doing well or have fallen behind and what they should have learned by the end of the year.

Even with her concerns about her own family, Currey has an advantage other moms don't: She doesn't work, so while her husband works from home, she can devote her time to walking her kids through their schoolwork. When students go back to school in the fall, Currey said she expects there will be a wide gap between students whose parents were able to help them with their schoolwork during the shutdown and others who couldn't.

Dallas ISD schools are shuttered because of coronavirus concerns.EXPAND
Dallas ISD schools are shuttered because of coronavirus concerns.
Nathan Hunsinger

The COVID Slide

It's a concern shared by Dallas ISD officials, education policymakers and researchers, who worry that the shutdown will have long-lasting consequences for students' academic outlooks, widening existing gaps between disadvantaged students and their peers.

During a normal year, when students come back from summer break, they've typically lost some amount of what they learned the year before. For more than a century, education leaders have worried about the problem and what to do about it.

Now, education leaders and experts worry that two months of school shutdowns leading into the summer will compound those losses, a trend some are calling the COVID slide. In a report released this month, the nonprofit Northwest Evaluation Association forecasts substantial learning losses associated with the coronavirus shutdown.

The effects are expected to be most severe in math, according to the projection. Students in most grades could come back to school in the fall with less than half of the math learning gains they made during the current school year. For students in some grades, the shutdown could wipe out nearly all of the progress they made this year.

In reading, the effects are expected to be less pronounced. On average, students are projected to come back to school in the fall with about 70% of the learning they gained the year before.

Beth Tarasawa, the organization's executive vice president of research and one of the paper's authors, said students usually retain more of what they learned in reading over a typical summer than what they do in math. That could be because parents feel better equipped to help their children in reading, she said. Most parents are far more likely to feel comfortable reading a book with their kids or taking them to the library than they would with sitting them down and making them do math problems over the summer.

In the report, researchers note that many districts across the country have adopted some form of distance learning during the shutdown, which could help mitigate some of the damage. But they also point out that many students, especially those in already vulnerable populations, are going through deeply traumatic experiences during the shutdown. Some students' parents have lost their jobs. Other students are faced with food insecurity, homelessness, domestic violence or the illness or death of a loved one. Those factors could make the academic outlook for those students even bleaker.

There's evidence to suggest that kind of trauma may continue to affect students years down the line. In a 2018 report, a team of researchers who looked at the New Orleans school district as students began to return after Hurricane Katrina found "evidence of trauma and disruption" affecting students' academic performance more than two years after the hurricane.

The problem with making plans for when students come back to school is that school leaders have to try to guess what the world will look like when they do, Tarasawa said. The educational landscape could be drastically different from the way it looked before the shutdowns began. School districts across the country need to be ready to support their teachers as they try to navigate a new way of doing their jobs and, at the same time, try to help students who have fallen behind during the shutdown catch up.

"It's going to be all hands on deck just to recover academically," she said.

Students will be remote learning until the end of the school year in DISD.EXPAND
Students will be remote learning until the end of the school year in DISD.
Nathan Hunsinger

Haves and Have-nots

One of the major problems Dallas ISD faced almost immediately after the shutdown began was students' lack of internet access at home. After the closures were announced, the district sent surveys to about 77,000 families asking whether they had internet access. Of the roughly 18,000 families who responded, about 30% said they didn't. To complicate matters further, public libraries and other places students might normally go to use the internet are closed.

Late last month, the district's board of trustees voted unanimously to spend up to $2.5 million to buy up to 12,000 mobile hot spots to send home with students who don't have internet access. At the time, Jack Kelanic, the district's chief technology officer, said that money, combined with other money raised by the Dallas Education Foundation, would be enough to cover Wi-Fi hot spots for any student who needed one. The district began distributing the hot spots last week.

But Ivonne Durant, Dallas ISD's chief academic officer, said the shutdown and the move to distance learning throws into sharp relief gaps that already existed between more vulnerable students and their peers. Shutdowns nationwide have created a huge increase in demand for Wi-Fi hot spots, meaning it took the district weeks to get them to students who need them. And many students who do have internet access at home have to share a single family computer with siblings who also need it for schoolwork, Durant said, meaning none of them can participate fully. That could leave many of those students behind when they return.

"It's really cast a light on the haves and the have-nots," she said. "We're painfully aware of that."

Dallas ISD officials hope to be able to resume in-person classes in August, at the beginning of the next school year. Over the summer, officials are planning to use the district's Creating Accelerated Performance program to help students who are at risk of falling behind catch up before the new school year starts, Durant said. The district launched the program last year to improve reading skills among black students and English language learners.

Once schools open up again, the district will test students in grades 1 through 11 to see how much the COVID-19 shutdown affected them academically, said Cecilia Oakley, the district's assistant superintendent of assessment and evaluation. Testing data will give the district a better idea of just how severe the slide has been and how much the equity gap has widened. It's possible that some students will actually be better off, Oakley said, since they may have been able to focus more on their work at home than they would at school.

Durant said she's been excited to see the way both teachers and families have jumped into the district's distance learning program. Besides sending families lesson plans for math, reading, science and social studies, the district is also making social and emotional learning resources available for parents to use with their children. The district is trying to help parents not only keep their children on track academically, but also manage what could be a traumatic time for many families.

"We understand that this is not just about helping them become teachers overnight," she said. "It's also about helping them cope with what they've got."

But Durant said the quality of the instruction students receive can vary drastically from one teacher to the next. The shutdowns threw teachers into distance learning unexpectedly and without much time to plan. Some teachers are comfortable using tools like Google Classroom and know how to motivate their students online as well as, or even better than, they would in the classroom, she said. Others are less comfortable with the new online setting, she said, and that difference can be a key factor in how much ground students lose over the break.

The district's teaching and learning division is already looking at how to assess students' learning losses when they return and offer them more individualized and personalized instruction, Durant said. It won't be an easy task, she said. The district will be asking its teachers and curriculum writers to reinvent the way they do their jobs overnight. But she said it's critical to helping students get back on track after the shutdown.

"Both this summer and next year, it will not be business as usual," she said. "The COVID slide is going to impact our students like nothing else we've ever seen, and so we've got to be prepared for them."

Amanda Scott's son, Fletcher, works on remote learning during the pandemic. He attends first grade at Mockingbird Elementary School in Dallas.EXPAND
Amanda Scott's son, Fletcher, works on remote learning during the pandemic. He attends first grade at Mockingbird Elementary School in Dallas.
courtesy Amanda Scott

Hoping for the Best

Amanda Scott is hoping her son, Fletcher, won't need much catching up when he goes back to school. Fletcher is a first grader at Mockingbird Elementary School.

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Scott does supply chain management for an oral care company based downtown. She and her husband, Jeremy, own Tutta's Pizza in the West End, where Jeremy works full time. Both of them have been working from home since the shutdown began, which means they have been able to trade off teaching and parenting duties as needed.

Fletcher's teacher sends out weekly lesson plans on Sundays and keeps in touch with parents throughout the week. Scott said the first two weeks of distance learning were hard, but once they settled into a routine, things got easier. She tries to review the material they've gone over with Fletcher even after they're done with school for the day. One day last week, after Fletcher learned the names of three-dimensional shapes, they walked around their neighborhood pointing out cubes, spheres and cones.

Fletcher misses his friends at school and things like art class and time on the playground. But he seems to like the distance learning classes, Scott said. Sometimes, when they're going through a lesson, she'll see small signs that Fletcher understands what they're talking about. She's taking those moments of validation as signs that what she's doing is working. Mostly, she hopes doing schoolwork at home will help him go back to school in the fall and pick up where he left off.

"All I can really do is hope for the best," Scott said. "He's a smart kid, and he seems to be into this."

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