Less than a month after schools across the country transitioned to online learning in the spring, the internet went wild with posts that students would have to repeat their current grade levels in the fall.

The idea wasn’t popular with parents — or educators — who were relieved to find the stories circulating social media were merely a set of bad April Fool’s jokes rather than a government-mandated strategy to get students caught up.

In reality, solutions to the so-called “COVID slide” will vary from district to district — and may be much more complicated.

What to expect

“It’s going to be really important to understand the gaps kids have, the unfinished learning that exists when kids come in,” said Jacob Bruno, vice president of professional learning at NWEA. The nonprofit organization recently released a report about COVID-19’s impact on student achievement.

Based on research of typical summer learning loss and data from the organization’s 2017-18 MAP Growth assessment, researchers projected students will return to school with about 70% of learning gains in reading and less than 50% in math compared to a typical school year.

There are other factors to consider as well, such as students’ social and emotional wellbeing.

“Because the learning loss for kids is going to be so varied — because the experiences of kids and families will be so varied during this time by sickness, by job loss, by social isolation — there are a number of things that certainly we need to take care of and attend to,” Bruno said.

Assess students early

The key will be to collect data early, the NWEA official said.

“Normally, you might wait a few weeks to kind of have some review with kids and knock off the cobwebs to attend to summer learning loss before you do kind of a fall baseline data collection via an interim assessment or what have you,” he said. “This is kind of like coming into the emergency room to some degree. As kids come into the classroom, like, ‘What do you know today?’”

California’s Cajon Valley Unified School District plans to use early assessment — in addition to the district’s 1:1 ratio for educational devices — as a key strategy for mitigating COVID-induced learning gaps. The data will be particularly helpful in meeting the needs of students who may not have had the same access to summer learning opportunities as their peers, said Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Karen Minshew. 

The district has purchased the i-Ready virtual diagnostic tool to assess where students are in English language arts and math as they start the school year online, and they will get online school work responsive to their results, regardless of grade level. The district will prioritize ELA and math as it did during spring remote learning while also integrating other subjects, such as history and science, through writing and reading comprehension. 

In El Paso Independent School District in Texas, students will also take a beginning-of-year assessment, as they do every fall. But the administration is taking a more active role in how that data will be used to inform instruction and support students. 

“We give [teachers] the tools, we give them resources, and there’s an expectation for it to happen, but we’re not driving that work,” said Tamekia Brown, the district’s chief academic officer. “Whereas, now we’re kind of the drivers of this whole effort to ensure we’re filling in gaps because it is a districtwide concern.”

The district is also planning to emphasize college readiness for older students. Instead of focusing on it only in workshops leading up to the PSAT in October, teachers will incorporate this preparation into the first 15 minutes of class, Brown said.

Based on student data collected in the spring, the district targeted certain students who were at risk of falling further behind and encouraged them to enroll in summer school. This led to a 30% increase in enrollment compared to a typical summer, Brown said. 

Meanwhile, El Paso’s curriculum and instruction team has been working this summer on incorporating the essential learning standards from last semester into the first quarter of lessons.

“We’ve had to be really intentional about auditing the curriculum … to say, ‘This is essential for first quarter, this is essential for second quarter,’ so that we’re not just saying, ‘Here’s the curriculum, and then I want you to do this on top of it,” Brown said.

These unique circumstances will force teachers to “weed the garden,” said Nancy Chartier, executive director of teaching and learning at the Green Bay Area School District in Wisconsin.

“Potentially there won’t be time this year to get to the [teacher’s favorite] dinosaur unit unless it’s closely tied to our essential learning and then our expected outcomes,” she said.

Standardize the online approach

Chartier said her district is offering professional learning for parents as one of its key strategies — and not just on the technological side of things. They’re also training parents in best practices for supporting their students. The superintendent is also conducting focus groups with parents to get their input as the district faces a hybrid remote/in-person start to the school year.

One thing they’ve heard “loud and clear” is that parents wanted a unified approach to online learning, and more of a “one-stop shop” rather than every student having to learn their teacher’s preferred learning management system, or LMS, Chartier said. The district purchased Seesaw for preschool through 5th grade, which used mainly paper packets in the spring, and will use Google Hangouts online sessions for students in grades 6-12.

“To me it’s kind of an equity issue,” said Suzanne Newell, director of academics for the Austin Independent School District in Texas, which has taken a similar approach to standardize its online learning platform districtwide. “The student who has the hardest time juggling multiple platforms is the student who has probably the biggest academic need and maybe the least parent support.”

Newell’s department has built six weeks’ worth of model classes with videos and other resources in the LMS for teachers to use this fall. This will also allow the district to provide a more uniform approach to both academic and social-emotional content, she said.

Expect varied experiences

Newell said Austin ISD is expecting a COVID slide. “Students have not been in classrooms with any sort of conventional instruction for several months, and so we know that they will be coming to us in need of accelerating learning in certain areas, and before we do that, we have to assess what they’re coming to us with.”

But she also wants to reframe the narrative.

“They have been doing things with their families, they’ve been doing things in their neighborhoods, they’ve been doing things to learn about science and pandemics and household functioning that they wouldn’t have had if we had been in our quote, unquote normal life,” Newell said.

But, she added, “I know we will have COVID slide and academic gaps that are in need of filling. I also don’t want us to discount the value that some of these other experiences might actually also bring to their lives.”

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